museums&MORE Winter 2015
Captive Audience

Inmates nicknamed it The Rock.” Located on an island 1.5 miles off the San Francisco coast, Alcatraz was America’s first maximum-security civilian prison, housing the nation’s most incorrigible criminals, including Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud.

During its 29 years as a federal penitentiary — between 1934 and 1963 — Alcatraz became the city’s most notorious landmark. Today, it’s one of the most popular national park sites in the U.S., welcoming more than 1.5 million visitors a year.

Lock and Key

Perhaps because the crimes were so legendary and terrifying, Alcatraz stories remain compelling today, something the Alcatraz Cellhouse Museum Store has used to its advantage, said Robert Lieber, vice president of interpretive sales for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Lieber develops and oversees all the visitor centers and interpretive retail locations for the Golden Gate National Parks.

Before the National Park Service opened Alcatraz to the public in 1973, visitors had never stepped foot on the island. The Conservancy developed some postcards, small publications and a brochure because they weren’t sure there would be much interest in the site. But there was huge interest: that first year, more than 50,000 people toured Alcatraz. Since then, visitors’ fascination with the macabre site has only increased, and as more people came to the island by ferry, more planning went into creating opportunities for visitors.

“I’ve been working in museums for 30 years, from the Guggenheim and the Whitney to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, so when I came on (in 1996), I had some product development experience plus a background in art, so I wanted to develop stories through products and publications,” Lieber said. “That became a very strong part of how we reached out and engaged visitors.”

For example, soon after Lieber first started at the Conservancy, a local company was repairing the cellhouse locks. Lieber noticed that the park rangers carried huge brass keys, and soon developed a reproduction of the key with a company in Marin County. Lieber decided that displaying the keys on a shelf wasn’t enough.

“The more you learn about Alcatraz, the more fascinating it is: one particularly horrific escape attempt involved key 107,” he said.

That key opened the door to the recreation yard, where prisoners could try to scale the fence and dash to the water.

“I thought we could tell that story on a big panel, show what the key board looked like and put our keys there,” he said. “People could read the story, see the key and it would have a different significance to them. We then developed a postcard of the story, so when you bought the key for $10, you also got the story. People stood there and read the whole thing. Keys just flew out the door.”

At that time, the Alcatraz store occupied 400 square feet. The key’s success sparked more ideas and once Lieber’s team had enough new products developed, he began thinking about expanding the museum store and packing it with original artifacts that told captivating stories. In 2009, the store was totally revamped and currently boasts 3,000 square feet of living history.

Rock Solid

Archival museum collections spanning the history of Alcatraz from its time as a military fortress through its time as the harshest Federal penitentiary are on exhibit throughout the space. Restored cell furnishings, handcuffs, shackles, correctional officer badges, historic artwork and photographs depicting daily life on The Rock are all on display.

“The store today is a former kitchen prep area, right underneath the dining hall,” Lieber said. “An escape attempt happened there, so we highlight that in the store as well as displaying actual trays and cups used by the inmates.”

Since that first brass key, Lieber has developed hundreds of historic reproductions, stationery items, apparel, children’s products and books that are sold locally and across the U.S. The $5 million of revenue generated by the store is invested in the Parks.

Along with the expanded space, the Conservancy commissioned the award-winning Alcatraz “Doing Time” Digital Audio Tour, featuring voices of former prisoners, guards and family members.

“”We also redid the way people entered the experience so they follow the prisoner’s path: you come into the shower room and then tour the cellhouse,” Lieber said.

When visitors leave, they walk through the museum store, where the experience continues.

“We always try to have some kind of written, interpretative piece that elaborates the story along with selling products,” Lieber said.

Not surprisingly, inmate cups are bestsellers. Most products are priced to be as accessible as possible: there are five escape comic books, each selling for $5.95; ID tags related to felons who attempted escapes; wallets made of recycled materials for $9.95; Alcatraz decals at $2.95; banners, pins and patches for $4.95; luggage tags for $5.95; and 150 different books. One especially successful item, Mugshot Cards showcasing inmate mug shots and rap sheets, is priced at $12.95.

Lieber’s team created “Dining In,” a magazine-format product detailing the dining experience from where food came from to recipes, diet and alcohol. In July, the store launched a new exhibit — a timeline room detailing what was happening off-island while Alcatraz was a prison.

“Inmates didn’t get any information about the outside world, so we wanted to tell the story about how the world changed radically from 1934 to 1963, the years of the federal penitentiary,” Lieber explained. “You start with the Depression and end up with Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Had A Dream.’ Instead of a brochure, we wanted to have products that really get you inside Alcatraz in its timeframe. We’re soon releasing a fold-out timeline book that will sell for $9.95.”

The store also has a popular Alcatraz Author Program, where former prisoners, correctional officers, children of guards who lived on the island and even the Alcatraz paper boys who went on to write books or become historians come talk to museum visitors and sign books.

“We currently have former prisoner Bill Baker, who wrote ‘Alcatraz #1259,’ and people wait in line up to 20 minutes to meet him,” said Lieber, himself the award-winning author of “Alcatraz: The Ultimate Movie Book.”

About 80 percent of the store’s products are developed in-house, but Lieber also attends the New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas Gift Shows and the Museum Store Association Expo.

“Our goal has always been to create a seamless experience, so that it becomes much more than just a store — it’s a museum experience.”

By Wendy Helfenbaum, special to Museums & More

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