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Professor Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French, has recently spent a week in California working on two current projects. He spent several days in Los Angeles, as a visiting research at the Getty Research Institute, where he was able to consult the rich holdings of French colonial iconography in the ACHAC collection. Professor Forsdick is one an international team of researchers preparing a volume on the collection, and his own research focuses on colonial ephemera (especially toys and games).

Jeu des échanges, the 1940s board game about colonial administration

This work develops in new directions his previous work on exoticism and human zoos, and allowed him to consult a range of material including cut-out toys, advertising materials and Vichy-era board games. Whilst in Los Angeles, Professor Forsdick also led a seminar for students in the Department of French at UCLA and had an opportunity to present the activity he currently leads relating to the AHRC Translating Cultures theme.

The landing stage at Angel Island Detention Centre

The research trip ended with a visit to San Francisco, where Professor Forsdick was able to continue work on a project relating to penal heritage and dark tourism. He visited two islands in San Francisco Bay, both of which are important dark heritage sites. On Angel Island, he met park rangers to tour the Immigration Station, often known as the ‘Ellis Island of the West’, through which – between 1910 and 1940 – numerous Chinese and Japanese migrants arrived in the United States. Professor Forsdick was able to consult the remarkably well-preserved Chinese poetry carved into the wooden walls of the detention centre, and make comparisons with similar traces of former prisoners and detainees at other sites such as the Cité de la Muette at Drancy in Paris and Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Chinese poetry at Angel Island

On the day of his visit, he was one of the only people to explore the Immigration Station on Angel Island. This was not the case the following day on Alcatraz Island, which remains one of the most popular penal heritage destinations in the world (with c. 1 million visitors per annum). The United States Penitentiary on Alcatraz is the source of what Professor Forsdick calls ‘penal exoticism’, a romanticization and sensationalization of prison heritage that is supported in this case by a rich corpus of popular cultural representations. What interested him most on the island, however, was the way in which the site was occupied in 1969 – following the closure of the prison – by Native American activists, who transformed Alcatraz for over a year into a centre of their struggle for recognition of land rights.

Building 64 on Alcatraz, with its American Indian graffiti

The prison-museum operates as one of a number of palimpsestic ‘sites of memory’ at which penal heritage co-exists with other histories and memories. The research at Angel Island and Alcatraz will feature in an article Professor Forsdick has co-written with Dr Wendy Asquith due to appear in a special issue of the journal Mémoires en jeu on dark tourism that he is currently co-editing with his collaborator Annette Becker of Paris-Nanterre. It will also be presented at a forthcoming workshop on Dark tourism in comparative perspective: Sites of suffering, sites of memory / ‘Tourisme des catastrophes’, sites de souffrances, sites de mémoire: perspectives comparées to be held in Liverpool on 21/22 March 2017.