Final Proposals

Final Project Proposal: Mapping the Attica Prison Uprising Collections at the New York State Museum

New York State Police investigators collect evidence in D Yard at Attica State Correctional Facility on September 13, 1971. Courtesy of the New York State Archives


On the morning of September 9, 1971, a heated exchange between prisoners and guards led to a rebellion. Prisoners took 42 guards and prison employees hostage, and 1,300 inmates participated in the uprising. They presented a manifesto consisting of 28 demands to New York State officials. Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald accepted most of the prisoners’ requests but could not offer amnesty to the inmates. 

On September 11, when news that a corrections officer had died from head injuries received during the initial rebellion, tensions escalated. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller refused to participate in negotiations and authorized a retaking of the prison by force. State Police helicopters dropped tear gas and officers charged the area. The uprising was contained; however, many of the inmates were subjected to days of beatings and retaliation by prison guards. By the end of the ordeal, prisoners had killed three fellow-inmates and one guard, while the State Police and guards shot dead 29 prisoners and ten hostages.

The imbalance of power between inmates and state officials made documentation of the events controversial. Sixty-two inmates were charged for their part in the uprising, but only one NYS Trooper was indicted for reckless endangerment, with the charges eventually dropped.

Potential Questions and Areas for Research

The significance of the Attica Prison Uprising Collection is, arguably, found as much in what can not be seen within the material culture of the museum’s collections as what was collected by the New York State Police in September 1971. In her book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, historian Heather Ann Thompson argues that argues state authorities were primarily concerned with building a case against the prisoners despite the fact that with four notable exceptions, all casualties at Attica in September 1971 were the result of law enforcement gunfire and not prisoner actions. Despite this, none of the evidence collections transferred to the museum includes ballistic evidence from the retaking.

In his book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot forcefully argues for historians to more closely and critically examine the ways “in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production” (Trouillot, xxiii). Trouillot’s book identifies the ways in which archival silences are constructed within the formation of historical narratives: the moment of fact creation (making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (making of archives); moment of fact retrieval (making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (making of history in the final instance).

The true story of Attica is chock full of these archival silences. From the first public statements falsely laying blame for the deaths of hostages at the hands of prisoners, to the collection of the physical evidence which forms the material foundation for our project in efforts by the New York State Police (and as argued by Heather Ann Thompson) to incriminate prisoners in a variety of crimes, to the legal morass that spanned more than 30 years in which the narrative was argued and obfuscated at multiple points. One of the foreseeable challenges of this project will be in determining how (or if) such archival silences can be visualized using the available data.

One of the ways in which this may be approached during this project is through linking object records within the data with oral histories or other documentary material from the event. For example, subsequent to acquiring this collection in 2010, New York State Museum historian Craig Williams conducted oral history interviews with New York State Police personnel who participated in the evidence recovery at Attica. Some of these individuals appear in the evidence tag information within the collections dataset and could be used to supplement analysis of the data in the project’s final format.

My ultimate goal for this project will be to present the data in an engaging and interactive format that will be useful to scholars of the Attica Prison Uprising, but that will also enable a more general audience to engage with and better understand critical concepts that revolve around Attica and other controversial historical events. Because I envision much of the inquiry based analysis to be driven by more theoretical concepts from Trouillot, as well as David Lowenthal, Kenneth Foote, and others, I will be relying on secondary resources that expand upon the potential public history theory and practice that may be beneficial in this project in addition to resources pertaining specifically to the events at Attica in 1971. Further, I will be presenting about the museum’s Attica collections at the National Council of Public History annual conference in Hartford on March 29 and as part of a panel at RIT in Rochester alongside documentary filmmaker Chris Christopher and Dee Quinn Miller, daughter of slain Corrections Officer William Quinn. I am hopeful that the discussion generated as a result of these panels will raise additional avenues for analysis and query.

Data Critique and Anticipated Data Cleaning

I propose to utilize the 1971 Attica Prison Uprising Collection at the New York State Museum. The data set includes records from 2,192 objects recovered from the Attica Correctional Facility following the violent retaking by New York State Police and Corrections Officers on September 13, 1971. The data includes a description of the object; notes regarding its collection by New York State Police as recorded on NYSP evidence tags; it’s unique NYS Museum identification number, as well as associated people and objects within the collections. One of the unique challenges to working with a museum collections data set is that a significant number of the fields in the set are pertinent only to the objects’ preservation and care at the New York State Museum. It will likely be that much of this information can be eliminated from the dataset in order to streamline analysis of information pertinent to the questions being examined and to facilitate placing the collections into a historical context.

Using WTF CSV with a sample of the larger data set reveals trends in the way the objects were classified by State Police investigators at the time. The bulk of the objects were recorded as “Contraband,” which reinforces the argument made by historian Heather Ann Thompson about NYS Police evidentiary priorities. WTF has also confirmed that much of the data recorded for museum use in the data set is extraneous to contextual analysis of the materials and will likely need to be cleaned.

In addition to removing unnecessary information, the project will require a fair amount of more substantive data cleaning. The extraction of information recorded on New York State Police evidence tags, which includes locations within the prison where items were recovered, as well as often noting which investigator was responsible for the evidence collected, will most likely occupy the bulk of the time required for data cleaning. This information will be vital for future data visualizations for this project including mapping and potential networking applications. One of the most obvious hurdles will be due to the fact that the information was recorded into the museum’s database by a variety of museum curatorial staff members. As a result, the way the information was transcribed and recorded varies from record to record.

In many instances, there is no tag associated with particular objects. In many cases, materials were simply gathered into large metal trash cans for transport to the New York State Police evidence facility in Batavia, NY. The relationship of the artifacts retrieved within each trash can are noted within the museum database, but some clean up will be required in order to make this association usable for data analysis.

Potential Visualizations

Preliminary examination of the data available in the Attica Collections dataset appears to lend itself to an interactive mapping visualization. Because many of the evidence tags indicate specific locations within the Attica State Correctional Facility, it is my intention to create an interactive map of the collections to better visualize how these items are spatially related to one another. Additional information may potentially be gleaned by examination of the clustering of artifacts at points within the prison, but this cannot be determined until the mapping has been conducted.

All objects within the State Museum’s collection have been photographed. The file names for these images correspond to the museum’s unique identification number. As such, I envision creating the interactive map in such a way as to permit users to navigate to the individual object level, which would include an image of the object as well as its description from the museum’s database.

The data also presents possibilities to visualize networked relationships between the objects in the collections with historical actors both within the event and the subsequent evidence collections, as well as between various objects within the collection.

Because the Attica Prison Uprising may be a somewhat obscure historical event for many users, I envision a timeline of the event as being useful in navigating the data presented in the primary visualizations. As such, I will be utilizing the timeline utility created by Knightlab to create a detailed timeline of the events of September 7-13, 1971. The timeline will be based upon the official report commissioned by the State of New York and chaired by Robert McKay and will be supplemented with images and film footage available from the New York State Archives and the Elizabeth Fink Papers at Duke University Library.

Proposed Project Timeline:

April 6, 2019: Completion of data cleaning; Determination if GIS rectifying needed for mapping visualization or if other methods for depicting spatial data is preferable.

April 9, 2019: Project Wireframe due

April 12, 2019: Knightlab Timeline completed (I have used this utility in the past and, given that the information is readily available, should be able to complete this facet of the project relatively quickly in order to maximize time for the data visualizations)

April 15, 2019: (if needed) Overhead plan of Attica from McKay Commission records rectified for use in GIS mapping.

April 26, 2019: Mapping visualization ready for testing

May 16, 2019: Final Project Submittal

Secondary Bibliography:

Adair, Bill, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011)

Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica (New York: Bantam Books, 1972)

Bell, Malcolm. The Attica Turkey Shoot: Carnage, Cover-up, and the Pursuit of Justice (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)

Foote, Kenneth E. Shadowed Grounds: America’s Landscape of Violence and Tragedy, Revised and Updated, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003)

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Meyer, Bernard. “Final Report of the Special Attica Investigation,” October 27, 1995, (Vol. 1); (Vol 2 and 3)

New York State Archives, “The Attica Uprising and Aftermath: Selected Documents from the Office of the Attorney General,”

New York State Police. Fifty-Fourth Annual Report of the New York State Police for the Year 1971, p. 36-40

Thompson, Heather Ann. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (New York: Pantheon, 2016)

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995, 2015)

One Comment

  • Maeve Kane

    For the photos, in order for Tableau to display the photos, they’ll have to be uploaded online somewhere and the image url included on your spreadsheet for each object. LMK if you want to discuss setting this up. If this moves into a longer term project at the museum, there are more elegant ways to do this with javascript and skipping Tableau entirely.

    We’ve talked about this already, but your mapping plans have a couple of options depending on whether it’s important to have the view of the prison georectified or not. If not, this: outlines the steps of plotting data points over an arbitrary image, and this: outlines how to make custom shapes for a map (eg, to count up all the objects in a specific area).

    Since your project is going to be focusing so heavily on evidentiary claims, it would be helpful to have a strong outline of both the accepted narrative of what happened and how the evidence was collected.