Recording Life in the Zone: The Panama Canal Museum Collection Oral Histories, by Jessica Marcetti and E. Haven Hawley

Recording Life in the Zone: The Panama Canal Museum Collection Oral Histories


Jessica Marcetti, Collections Coordinator, and E. Haven Hawley, Chair, Special and Area Studies Collections Department, University of Florida


The Panama Canal Museum Collection (PCMC) at the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Libraries collects items representing life and work in the Panama Canal Zone, including photographs, documents, 3-D objects, and oral histories.

Generations of Americans working on the Panama Canal lived in the American territory surrounding the canal, called the Panama Canal Zone, from 1904 to 1999. The U.S. transferred control of the canal to Panama in 1999, with most Americans who had worked and lived in the Canal Zone having to leave. Many of those who made new homes in the U.S. had never lived there before. A small group founded the Panama Canal Museum in Seminole, FL, but financial concerns made a free-standing museum difficult to sustain. From 2012 to 2015, the museum’s collection was transferred to the University of Florida, supported by a three-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

This transfer also included a merger of communities: active “Zonians” (Canal Zone residents) with the University of Florida. As a part of this integration, the Smathers Libraries partnered with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program to conduct interviews with the Zonian community. Research libraries have much more experience preserving and creating access to oral histories than initiating such projects, so this venture represented new territory for the Smathers Libraries.

A self-selected group of largely white American Zonians from the original Panama Canal Museum comprised the first oral history participants. Their accounts generally reflected parallel experiences, portraying the Canal Zone as an egalitarian, cohesive society.

The Libraries have actively sought to expand the diversity of oral histories to more fully reflect the range of Panama Canal experiences and allow community members to redefine their lives as Zonian diaspora. In 2014, individuals of West-Indian descent, visiting Gainesville for the PCMC Centennial Celebration, were interviewed. Previously, there was little representation of the West Indians who worked on the canal.

Oral histories were also collected at the Panama Canal Society Reunion, which hosted approximately 2000 attendees. Here, participants were invited by PCMC staff, shifting selection away from already well-represented American Zonians to incorporate the experiences of Panamanians in the Canal Zone.

These recent interviews redefined who may be represented in the PCMC and shifted the tone of the collection to one that seeks inclusion of many experiences. These efforts created a unique combination of voices that brings together the experiences of Americans living abroad (gold payroll employees) and foreign workers in an American territory (silver payroll employees) for a fuller understanding of life in the Panama Canal Zone.

This project enabled separate communities to create new opportunities for working together organizationally as well as a rich oral history collection that highlights the complex dynamics of culture and power abroad. The Libraries plan to continue exploring bridges between former residents of the Canal Zone as they construct new identities in diaspora and seek to document their experiences in the Panama Canal Zone.