Souvenirs: Memory Rebooted
Sentiment, authenticity and identity in contemporary object culture.
An essay by Laura Houseley who was commissioned by Irish Design 2015 to explore the history of the souvenir and layout the landscape and context of The Souvenir Project.
The term souvenir, as any good Latin dictionary will tell you, comes from Subvenire and means ‘come to mind’. A souvenir is a trigger, a reminder of a place or time, a tool for easy access to memories and feelings for someplace or sometime, or, most commonly, both. A souvenir is usually a physical object. Tradition dictates it is often small and relatively inexpensive, easily transportable. A souvenir is a difficult thing to define as its shape and form and materiality are without any common ground. Souvenirs can be the canned air from a Spanish monastery, the certainly fake concrete scrap from a no-longer existing monument to Communism or the plastic rain shoe of a geisha (all of these I have bought). In fact, a souvenir only becomes a souvenir once it is in your belonging and connected to your memories – an ownerless souvenir cannot exist. How very metaphysical.
The meaning of what a souvenir is and what it does has slowly evolved over time, just as the way we travel and experience places and even how we access our memories has changed. Today’s souvenir is ripe for reinterpretation: Forget about products reflecting clumsy stereotypes, mass-produced somewhere far, far away from the place they depict and imagine instead objects with a genuine connection to the land from which they came: Things that gently echo the people, history, geography or nature of a place. Today’s souvenir can be, if we allow it, an extra-ordinary object, rare in its bridging of experiential and object cultures and fascinating in its shape-shifting nature and sentimentality.
"A souvenir only becomes a souvenir once it is in your belonging and connected to your memories – an ownerless souvenir cannot exist."
Consider how concerned we all are with ‘locally made’ produce, with provenance and with integrity. Think of our infatuation with and taste for craft and craft production. Then there is our love of ‘experience’, all of these modern day pursuits hint at the possibility for a renaissance of the souvenir, reborn as an authentic object making use of locale materials and speaking directly, and strongly, of place.
Souvenirs have been around for as long as humans have travelled. The 17th century grand tour phenomenon established the popular tradition of souvenir collecting (miniature coliseums and pantheons were essential purchases, along with the odd renaissance painting), fashions such as Japonism fetishised objects from far away (and the cultures they represented) and the Victorians cemented our need to discover (conquer?), collect and display, a passion that permeated from museum to mantelpiece. For many people the idea of a souvenir will be stuck in the seventies with the jovial, kitschy mass-market type of objects that were popular by-products of package tourism. In the recent past the souvenir has been a collective thing: homogenous and unindividual.
The way we experience places and share those experiences is still changing. We no longer look to stuffed donkey to remember a holiday; increasingly we revisit our travels in digital spaces and share those experiences, widely, with others. That doesn’t mean that the souvenir’s purpose is extinct, just that its value has shifted slightly. The souvenir has become a more personal artefact; it is less about sharing common or familiar experiences as it once was – we have Facebook for that – and more about preserving rare and intimate memories. Whereas we would once rejoice in the shared experience of a place and, in turn, the object that represented it (consider the classics here; Spanish doll, Eiffel tower, snow globe) we now search for something authentic and less expected, because that is also the way we travel and that is also how we place value on objects.
As a rule, souvenirs need not even be something purchased. A found object has just as much right (and perhaps more charm) to be called a souvenir as something bought at a local market or gift shop. But in the past there has been a heavy leaning towards cultural mementos; architectural monuments in miniature are a (personal) favourite, reproduced art works and even political figures (Mao, Lenin etc.) are common haul. This is commodification of course and it is interesting to consider the process of manufacture of these memories-made-physical: who has made them and why? And, importantly, whose memories are they in fact? Souvenirs use archetypes and iconography, they are by their nature reductive – a souvenir need only offer us a glimpse of a place, a tiny fragment of it, from a whole experience can be accessed. This is where power lies.
We live in an increasingly efficient and detached world and it is very usual, now, to hear designers and manufacturers talk about the importance of ingraining objects and products with ‘narrative’ and ‘emotional connection’. These things are predisposed in a souvenir. And it is this ultimately, the inherent sentimentality of souvenirs, which ensures their survival.
"Today’s souvenir can be, if we allow it, an extra-ordinary object, rare in its bridging of experiential and object cultures and fascinating in its shape-shifting nature and sentimentality."
Essay by Laura Houseley, design critic, author, and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Design Review magazine
Imagery by Andrew Nuding
Makers & Brothers