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925,000 Campsites: The Commodification of an American Experience

925,000 Campsites: A Conversation with Peter Blodgett, Terry Young and Martin Hogue

Sunday, 5 October 2014, 2:00 pm

Martin Hogue is the author of the 925,000 Campsites exhibit. He will be discussing his work with Peter J. Blodgett, the H. Russell Smith Foundation Curator of Western American History at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, and Terry Young, a Professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. Blodgett has spoken and written widely on national parks, tourism and recreation and is currently developing two exhibitions for the Huntington Library on the theme of Geographies of Wonder: Americans and the National Park Experience to appear in 2016 and 2017. Young is the author of Building San Francisco’s Parks, 1850-1930 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and the forthcoming Heading Out: American Camping Since 1869, to be published in 2015.

925,000 Campsites: The Commodification of an American Experience

5 —26 October, 2013

One does not impose, but rather expose the site.
Robert Smithson

Modern campgrounds are replete with delightful irony: they are serviced by an increasingly sophisticated range of utilities and conveniences, yet marketed to perpetuate the cherished American ideal of the backwoods camp. Each “lone” campsite functions as a stage upon which cultural fantasies can be performed in full view of an audience of fellow campers interested in much the same “wilderness” experience. As the exhibit title suggests, that parcel of land upon which travelers may pitch a tent (and will almost certainly park their car, trailer, camper, or RV) is thus only an imagined ideal. Despite the nearly 1 million campsites across the country, demand for sites remains so high at popular destinations like Yosemite National Park that would-be campers reportedly turn to Craigslist to purchase campsite reservations at three or four times their original price. In 2010 Kampgrounds of America—KOA, familiarly—alone reported a total consumption of over five million campsite-nights, as well as 1.5 million hits monthly on its website. Serviced by extensive networks of infrastructure and populated with trailers and $300,000 RVs, campgrounds celebrate a unique form of American ingenuity in which intersecting narratives and desires (wilderness, individuality, access, speed, comfort, nostalgia, profit) have become strangely and powerfully hybridized.

Using author-produced maps and diagrams, as well as a collection of archival materials, the exhibit examines how this cultural ideal of rugged American character came to be appropriated and transformed into widely replicated templates and generic spatial protocols. Tracing the historical arc that connects late-nineteenth-century recreational campers to the Adirondacks with overnighting RVers in a Walmart parking lot, this exhibit posits four key themes that reflect the radical physical and cultural transformations of the campground in the past century: 1. the campsite as the standard unit of management of any campground; 2. the geography and the range of destinations from Yosemite National Park to the KOA on Las Vegas Strip; 3. the rise of services as the primary criteria for campground comparison; 4. the organization of campgrounds into national systems and franchises. Together these themes illustrate a fascinating history of twentieth-century American landscape.

About the Author

Martin Hogue is the William Munsey Kennedy Jr. Fellow at the State University of New York’s Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he has worked since 2010. Trained as an architect and landscape architect, his research explores the notion of “site” as a cultural construction—specifically, the mechanisms by which locations become invested with the unique potential to acquire the designation of site. Hogue’s research has been supported with residencies at the MacDowell Colony (2005), the Center for Land Use Interpretation (2006), the Canadian Center for Architecture (2009), and the University of Nebraska, where he was appointed Hyde Chair in 2004. His work has appeared in 306090, Architecture-Québec, Bracket, Dichotomy, Ground Magazine, Landscape Journal, Numéro, Pidgin, Places, Thresholds, and the Journal of Architectural Education. His drawings have been displayed in solo exhibits at over 20 venues across the United States, including The Ohio State University, Cornell University, the Urban Center in New York and the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

 

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