Alcatraz: reflections on authenticity

This blog is part of an exchange between students at Stanford and CCNY, for their studies in the rhetoric of architecture, space and tourism

In the transformation of Alcatraz from a functioning prison to a tourist destination, certain changes and additions were inevitable. During our visit, we were particularly interested in how the additions made to Alcatraz affected the authenticity of the experience of the tourists as well as their perception of Alcatraz as a historical site. While we found bathrooms, information kiosks, signs pointing to different buildings, and fences to mark off restricted areas all over the island, the most interesting addition were in the cell house.

Certain additions and modifications are unavoidable in order to ensure the safety of the visitors. Fire extinguishers, exit signs, CPR devices, and guardrails are there to protect the tourists. Many of these additions are easily overlooked because they are incorporated into many of the structures in today’s world as mandatory safety precautions. Other necessary additions were the few bathrooms scattered throughout the prison. However, it was pointed out that few bathrooms were added to the hundreds of preexisting bathrooms preserved in the prisoner’s cells to maintain the authenticity of the site. For the most part, these additions were minimal and unobtrusive and did not detract from the tourists’ “authentic” experience.

While some restrictions are placed to ensure the safety of the visitors, others are established to maintain the historical integrity of the site. Glass walls were placed around the morgue, the control room, and mannequins donning the uniform of the officials. Several other areas were chained off to restrict tourist access, whether “for [the visitor’s] safety” or to minimize tourist interference with historical displays.  These restrictions somewhat inhibit the tourists’ freedom to explore the site, however they too are necessary in the preservation of Alcatraz for future “authentic experiences” and remind the visitors that Alcatraz is a historical site.

In the end, we found that the most significant additions were intended to immerse tourists in prison life and to provide historical information about Alcatraz. The majority of the visit in the cell house was guided by an audio tour that added sound effects and narration to the experience. This successfully provided visitors with a historical background of the prison, its inmates, officers, and escape attempts. And, while the audio tour was, at times, overly dramatic, it worked with the displays of furnished cells, stocked supply room, and different informational panels with historical pictures to inform the visitor. Clearly, the piles of clean clothes and bedding have not been there since Alcatraz closed, but it provides an opportunity for tourists to imagine they are immersed in an authentic, historical Alcatraz.

Brett Solow, Sophia Villarreal, Laura Pospisil, Anna Kim

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Stanford-CCNY, Fall 2010: Interrogating Architecture ||. Bookmark the permalink.

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