Beyond its legacy as a world-famous former penitentiary that once held notorious criminals like Al Capone, Alcatraz has undergone numerous incarnations that have contributed to its unique and deeply layered history.
First inhabited by native peoples who arrived more than 10,000 years ago, the island was the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse (completed in 1854 and replaced in 1909 by the current lighthouse) and was recognized for its strategic value as a military fortress in the Civil War era. Military prisoners were held on Alcatraz until 1933, when the site was transferred to the Department of Justice; the federal penitentiary operated from 1934 to 1963. Following the prison’s closure, what had been a site of US government power became a place of Native American protest with the occupation by the Indians of All Tribes from 1969 to 1971, which catalyzed the Red Power movement.
Today, Alcatraz stands as one of the country’s most popular national park sites and visitor destinations, attracting more than 1.4 million people each year. The island is also home to gardens, tide pools, nesting birds, and unrivaled views of San Francisco Bay. The FOR-SITE exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz occupied the New Industries Building, A Block, the Hospital, and the Dining Hall from fall 2014 through spring 2015, adding yet another dimension to the Alcatraz experience.