Live! from Wyoming: National Geographic's 'Yellowstone Live' and the Legacy of the Park as Performance

Curator's Note

In summers of 2018 and 2019, the National Geographic Channel in the United States aired Yellowstone Live, a multi-day programming “event” that followed cameras as they presented the park’s flora and fauna in real-time. In 2019, this included four nights of programming from June 24 to June 26, promising that “flowers are blooming, rivers are flowing, babies are abundant and, therefore, predators are lurking." Adding to this promised vitality, executive producer Al Berman and filmmaker Jeff Hogan used the above teaser video to impress upon the viewer just how real and live their depiction of the park was, with Berman stating, “this is how the wildlife really is in Yellowstone, in real time. It’s kinda like the ultimate reality documentary.”

Black and white image of Yellowstone with a sign reading "Lunch Counter for Bears Only."Image by the National Park Service.

However, one need not look too far into Yellowstone’s history to see that ‘reality’ and Yellowstone have long been incongruous. Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872, making it America’s oldest national park. Beginning in 1916, as the National Park Service was formalized by the U.S. Congress, the first director of the NPS, Stephen T. Mather, undertook the task of modernizing Yellowstone to make it an attractive destination for tourists. As automobiles became more accessible to a growing American middle class, Mather hired landscape architects to design new roads through the parks that framed the scenery through the windshield of an automobile. McClelland (1998) states that “accessibility was the foremost concern. Mather was particularly interested in bringing the public to the national parks. He felt that the federal government had an obligation to pursue a broad policy for the extension of road systems in the parks and to encourage travel by railroad and automobile” (p. 124). 

Beyond infrastructure, Mather—along with the park’s first superintendent Horace Albright—experimented with a number of artificially contrived “encounters” between nature and tourists. These included staged buffalo stampede shows (featuring Native American actors), bear feeding stations, and at least two in-park 'zoos.'

While these latter transgressions have largely been corrected in the modern park (for example, feeding the wildlife is prohibited), the legacy of these anthropogenic and performative interventions at Yellowstone continues. So while National Geographic’s Yellowstone Live is admirable in many ways—especially in raising conservation awareness among its viewers—its claims to ‘reality’ must be viewed through Grusin’s (2004) lens that suggest National Parks themselves are more reproductions of landscape art rather than purely acts of environmental preservation.

 

References:

Grusin, R. (2004). Culture, technology, and the creation of America’s national parks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

McClelland, L. F. (1998). Building the national parks: Historic landscape design and construction. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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