Whether you know it as the current National Park Service Museum, the former U.S. Federal Penitentiary, or the Azkaban of the Muggle World, Alcatraz is an iconic American landmark that attracts millions of tourists from around the world each year. This summer, I had the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon whilst on a family vacation in Northern California – and indulged in the full visitor experience on an island full of other tourists.
Alcatraz is a solitary, pensive and surprisingly effective experience — and with an audio tour that serves as the destination’s main storytelling structure, it is far more immersive and profound than I would have expected from such a busy tourist site. The tour, included for all with the price of admission, and heard through headphones and an lanyard audio player, guides you throughout the prison’s cell block with voice actors and narrators to lead you through the history of the infamous penitentiary. While some may argue that a solitary audio tour would be isolating and negative, the effect is quite the opposite. The headphones allow you to truly immerse in a time and place, despite being surrounded by throngs of other tourists. As you explore, the entire building is silent save for the sound of your audio tour. You and all the other tourists are absorbed in the same story at different paces — alone yet together within a shared reflective experience. I found that both the physical setting of the prison and the auditory component of the tour were essential to the overall experience, and one could not exist or work without the other — the physical cell block gave the narration context while the audio tour filled in the many blanks that walking around the prison without a guide would create.
I do see ways in which the tour could improve. The tour could be tailored to your interests — while still maintaining the same core story — because a ten-year-old might want to learn more about these “infamous criminal masterminds” that they’ve never heard of before, whereas and older adult who grew up with those figures as common societal knowledge may want to know more about the prison’s logistics and layout. Personally, I wanted to hear more about the several escape attempts from the former inhabitants, and found it interesting that while no one successfully escaped Alcatraz, the swim from the island to San Francisco is possible, and people do it every year. The history of the Native American’s protest encampment in the 1970s could also be further developed as a separate storyline.
This idea is much like NGX’s own project at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, where the visitor could choose between three topics for their Augmented Reality Tour (Gender, Classes, and Architecture). Similarly, the SF MOMA delivers audio tours with various storylines (and choice of narrators) depending on interest and duration.
Notably, the experience is screen-free, other than an introductory theatre experience. I didn’t miss screens, but did note that the printed panels contained too much text for my preference. It was frustrating to read and listen to a conflicting audio tour at the same time. Instead, the panels could be images only, or the audio tour could be delivered through a tablet program that would deliver the images only at the right moments in the experience. The tablets could then supplement the experience in other ways, by provided augmented overlays where appropriate.
Even without these adjustments, my time at Alcatraz was very rewarding, the experience was intriguing, and I gained some unexpected knowledge about the island from before and after its twenty-nine year term as a federal prison.
-Emma Doig, Intern & Teenager-in-Residence