Author Archives: racheltanabe

Significance of Alcatraz


Alcatraz may appear to be just a large, haunted rock floating off the coast of San Francisco, but it is a historic site of great national interest. This little island is among one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country and is internationally known.

Alcatraz has served various purposes for several different groups throughout its history. First, the island was put to use as a United States military outpost and jail for confederate sympathizers during the Civil War.

Breaking the Rules

Next, the island gained infamy as a America’s highest-security federal penitentiary for some of the nation’s most dangerous convicts. Alcatraz’s prison era has been the subject of prolific media attention since it was opened in 1933; there have been countless newspaper articles, books, television shows, and movies all devoted to telling the story of America’s daunting and mysterious island penitentiary.

Welcome to the Rock

Finally, Alcatraz gained prominence as a site of important activism and protest for Native American rights. The Indians of All Tribes’ nineteen month occupation represented an integral part of American culture. Native Americans leveraged the 1960’s era values of free speech and protest to draw attention to the government’s unfair treatment of indigenous peoples, and ultimately helped change the government’s policies towards Native Americans.

Although Alcatraz may only look like a rock near San Francisco to some, its intangible heritage and inherent cultural significance is derived from the role it played in so many different individuals’ lives. Because of the valuable historic and multifaceted roles the island has played throughout its storied history, it is critical that Alcatraz be preserved for future generations.




Currently, tours are held on the island, and visitors can go to and from the island via a ferry from Pier 33. Pier 33 is located near Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco. The ferry system is called Alcatraz Cruises and is owned by Hornblower Cruises and Events. The ferries function all year.

Touring the island requires a lot of walking. The Alcatraz dock area, prison building main floor, all bookstores, museum displays, and theater are all wheelchair accessible. Also, certain visitors can use the SEAT program (Sustainable Easy Access Transport), which consists of small cars that can drive visitors with limited mobility around the island. However, further work can be done to improve the accessibility of the island. Some smaller ferries could be used to give tours around the exterior of the island.

Also, the proposed multi-sensory virtual tour booths, as outlined in the  Interpretive Plans section, would help increase accessibility of the island for individuals with limited mobility who wish to see more of the island than SEAT provides. Because it is multi-sensory, it will also help visitors who are hearing impaired, since they can increase the volume to meet their needs. Also, for visually impaired visitors, listening to the audio tour along with the smells that are released at each location will enhance the accessibility of the historic material for them.

Engaging New Communities


In order to remain a popular and relevant cultural heritage site, it is important that the National Park Service expands its current tour operations and appeal to a wider audience of potential visitors. This would also encourage those who have already visited the island to return in the future. The proposals included in this project, accessible in the Interpretive Plans section, will help the National Park Service to reach out to San Francisco Bay Area residents, repeat visitors, children, Native Americans, and Internet “visitors”. By reaching out to various audiences, the National Park Service can ensure that each different group will have the opportunity to learn about Alcatraz Island as a unique, multi-faceted cultural heritage site.

Our interpretive plans’ inclusions of new digital technologies, such as the integration of virtual reality technology, will appeal to the San Francisco Bay Area’s significant population of young people involved in the production of technology. The National Park Service could use the introduction of these new, high-technology plans as a way of reaching out to San Francisco Bay Area residents, many of whom would be intrigued by the new digital components of Alcatraz’s tour offerings. Thus, these new interpretive plans would allow the National Park Service to appeal to individuals living in close proximity to Alcatraz, encourage those who have never visited the island to visit, and freshly excite previous visitors.

Alcatraz Arrival

Additionally, our comprehensive proposals will allow for Native American visitors, including but not limited to those who are aware of and connected to the Indians of All Tribes group, to experience Alcatraz as an important Native American heritage site. The National Park Service currently offers little information on the island’s important history as the site of a Native American occupation. Certain proposals, such as the multi-sensory virtual tour booth and the smartphone application, will provide more information about the Native American occupancy for visitors. This is done in hopes that making this information more available will attract Native American populations and those interested in their history to visit Alcatraz.

Finally, certain aspects of our proposal could be adapted to allow for Internet visitors to take virtual tours of Alcatraz. While some aspects of the proposed plans, such as the olfactory components featured in the multi-sensory virtual tour booths, could not be adapted for Internet visitors, other aspects of the proposed plans could be suitable for online distribution. For instance, virtual visitors could pay to access the smartphone application and disable their phone’s GPS capabilities in order to take a photo tour of the gardens and wildlife. This would be done without the location specific story map, but with all of the application’s included information. Additionally, the holographic tours of Alcatraz could be filmed and uploaded to an online database, accessible to virtual visitors for a fee to watch the online tour of the storied former penitentiary.

History of Alcatraz Island

Alc_Ballard_Online Media 08

Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay, only 1.5 miles from the shore of San Francisco, California. It now contains structural remnants of a prison in disuse, early military fortifications, and the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. While the island is thought to have been first inhabited by the Ohlone Native American tribe, the earliest recorded discovery of the island was by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. Juan Manuel de Ayala christened the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, or the Island of the Pelicans, due to the island’s large population of seabirds.

Military Era

     In 1850, U.S. President Millard Fillmore claimed the island for military use, leading to the eventual construction of a fortress. In 1861, when the American Civil War started, the island was mounted with 85 cannons in casemates in order to protect the San Francisco Bay from potential attacks. Although the guns on Alcatraz were never fired for offensive reasons, Confederate sympathizers and privateers during the Civil War were imprisoned on the island during wartime.

Prison Era



     In October 1933, the Bureau of Prisons was given the responsibility of turning Alcatraz from a military prison to a high security federal prison, marking the beginning 5 of the era for which Alcatraz is most well known. In 1934, Alcatraz opened and became America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege federal penitentiary. Alcatraz gained worldwide notoriety due to its isolated location and reputation as home to America’s most notorious criminals, such as Robert Stroud and Al Capone. Several highly-publicized escape attempts were made by prisoners despite the prison’s supposedly inescapable fortifications; to this day, Alcatraz escape attempts continue to be the subject of great speculation. In 1963, after nearly thirty years of use, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the prison to be closed, citing its high maintenance costs and quickly eroding structure as reasons to discontinue use.

Indians of All Tribes OccupationAlc_Tanabe_Photo_23-2

      In March of 1963, the prison officially closed, ending the island’s chapter as an infamous federal penitentiary. Six years after Alcatraz’s prison was closed, Richard Oakes led a group of approximately eighty Native American activists from various tribes, who named themselves the Indians of All Tribes, in occupying the island for nineteen months, starting on November 20, 1969. The Indians of All Tribes wanted to draw attention to the injustices directed at Native Americans throughout American history, specifically protesting government policies that acted to terminate Native American tribes. In order to draw attention to their cause, the Indians of All Tribes painted graffiti slogans on prison walls, prison doors, and the water tower—some of which were restored for visitors to view today, such as the water tower, pictured below. The federal government initially rejected the Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz, and attempted to force the group to vacate the premises by placing barricades around the island. These barricades proved ineffective, but authorities continued to insist upon the group’s departure from the island. Over the nineteen-month occupation, the Indians of All Tribes struggled to remain a cohesive organization, as members within the group struggled for power over one another.

     By 1971, President Nixon and his administration became fed up with the Indians of All Tribes’ movement, and began developing a more active removal plan to end the occupation. On June 10, 1971, federal marshals and FBI agents stormed the island and removed the Indians of All Tribes from Alcatraz, ending the occupation. While the U.S. government failed to meet the specific demands of the Indians of All Tribes during the island’s occupation, the official government policy of terminating American Indian tribes eventually changed, and now a policy of Indian self-determination is in place.



Flickr Album

Interpretive Plans

      The following proposals will enhance the experience of Alcatraz’s visitors by expanding upon current tour options and introducing entirely new plans. These proposals make specific use of digital technology to provide Alcatraz’s visitors with modern, interactive methods by which to learn about and engage with Alcatraz as a cultural heritage site. The proposals will be focused on providing visitors with accessible information and educational opportunities to learn about Alcatraz’s discovery, wildlife and landscape, and rich history as a communal home.

Interpretive Project Plan #1: Wildlife of Alcatraz Smartphone App

by Rachel Tanabe


Alcatraz’s gardens and native wildlife represent an important aspect of the island’s heritage. However, Alcatraz’s current visitors have only limited opportunities to learn about the island’s gardens and wildlife through scheduled tours offered a few times per week . My interpretive plan, the Wildlife of Alcatraz Smartphone App, would allow all of Alcatraz’s visitors to learn more about the island’s plant and animal species. The app will include two specific features to appeal to visitors; a story-mapping feature as well as a virtual scavenger hunt

Story Mapping Alcatraz’s Gardens

     The story mapping feature would use GPS technology to provide visitors with location-specific information about the plant species in each area of the gardens, as well as the animal species that are native to Alcatraz. As visitors walk through the gardens, the app would provide location-based information about the various plant species found in specific areas of the garden. In addition to providing information about the island’s 13 gardens, the app would also feature audio commentary by the volunteers who work to maintain the island’s plant life. This audio commentary would provide users with firsthand accounts of Alcatraz’s rich history from some of the island’s most dedicated stewards who work to maintain the expansive gardens.

Scavenger Hunt Feature


   The app would also feature a scavenger hunt feature aimed at engaging the island’s youngest visitors. Alcatraz’s violent history as a maximum-security prison may not be suitable for young children. The app’s scavenger hunt would offer young children visiting the island another way of engaging with Alcatraz’s history. Children would use the app’s GPS based virtual map to identify different plant and animal species, which would then be rewarded with points that could be redeemable for a small prize such as a sticker or pencil from the Alcatraz gift shop.

Interpretive Project Plan #2: Enhancing the Experience for All Visitors with Multi-sensory Virtual Tour Booths

by Sophie Ballard

    In this project, we would incorporate visual, audio, and olfactory components to create a virtual, interactive, self-guided tour of Alcatraz. We would use technology and historical archaeological knowledge to bring these three senses together to recreate the experience of Alcatraz in a way that would be as lifelike as possible. The viewer would sit in a booth located on Alcatraz near the entrance. The booth would be painted black and closed with a door, so the viewer could isolate their senses to those presented to them by the simulation. As the viewer controlled where they walked, using remote controls attached to the booth, the booth would release different odors depending on the viewer’s location in the tour. The viewer would also wear noise-cancelling headphones so that they could best hear the accompanying sounds and voices coming from the virtual tour. The themes that the multi-sensory virtual tour booth focuses on are prisoner life, community and/or home, education, wildlife and landscape. There would be tours available from the different significant time periods from Alcatraz’s history.

By spreading awareness of the significance of the site, more tourism will ultimately be generated. As more people learn about Alcatraz and become fascinated with its history, they will want to tour it themselves and will encourage their friends and family to do the same. These virtual tour booths will give visitors the opportunity to see the island as it was in its various reincarnations. They will be able to stroll through the island when the Native Americans occupied it— follow the paths that they took to their campsite and observe the graffiti they decorated the walls with. Also, they could even speak to some of the characters in the tour to better understand what Alcatraz means to them. Our ultimate goal for the multi-sensory virtual tour booths is that they can be a tool to help draw interest from and educate the world about the island and its valuable roles throughout history.

Interpretive Project Plan #3: Seeing Alcatraz Through a Lens

By Daniel Hong

Tour Starts Here

Alcatraz currently offers audio tours where tourists use headphones to listen as they take a walking tour around the site. We think this experience could be improved upon if people could visually see things besides the empty prison cells and common areas that once used to be occupied by prisoners. In this plan, a set of virtual tour glasses would be added to the already implemented headphone tour that the Alcatraz hosts for the tourists coming to visit the site every day. The glasses and headphones will be synced together to show certain things that the participant is hearing at the same time to enhance their experience of the tour at Alcatraz.

Additionally, this interpretive plan is highly educational. With this project, guests would be able to see virtual prisoners doing what the tour would explain them doing. Certain locations of the tour would have portions where the visitor would stand still and a slideshow-style projection would come out through the virtual glasses’ lens to teach the participants. The lens will also project interviews of ex-prisoners who are alive today, so they can hear firsthand how it felt to be a prisoner living in these cells. They will also learn about the discovery of the site itself while on the tour.

Interpretive Project Plan #4: Interpretative Projection Installation

by Paulina Antaplyan

   This plan aims to make the walking tour more educational by incorporating an interactive projection as the visitors walk through the cells. While visitors go from cell to cell, a projector would display a hologram on the wall. They could see a projection of the daily life of a prisoner as he goes about his routine. This project would incorporate the themes of prisoner life and community and/or home. To further depict the daily life of a prisoner, the projector could transition from the prisoner having a breakdown to having someone come provide comfort. It is very important to show the emotional roller coaster the inmates went through. Also, having the visitor walking into the cells adds another level of emotion. Physically being in that space, while watching these videos, helps build a more holistic picture of prisoner life.

Another way to do this holographic projector would be to depict the significant time periods in Alcatraz’s history. One prison cell could have a hologram show when Alcatraz was a site used for armory; how it looked or what was going. The next cell could show when the site was a factory.  Then, in another cell, the hologram could show the prison. Instead of focusing on the individual prisoner, it could focus on the prison as a whole. Another cell could look back on when the Indians of All Tribes occupied the island and show the graffiti and areas of conflict.

Alcatraz Cell

Currently Alcatraz has walking tours that allows you to see into the cells and walk through the common areas, but nothing that gives significant insight into what prisoners’ lives were like within the cells. Visitors can enter in large groups and the projection that continuously loop allowing people to visit the cells regardless of time. This projection plan will humanize the site instead of pose it as a structural facility.