Souvenirs as Starting Points

Here’s some background for the 1st exercise of the Desktop Design Academy … Hope its useful! 

Here is the brief if you are interested!

Exit, as they say, through gift shop. Through, in other words, the souvenir laden trap laid for any tourist that must – if you are anything like me – be negotiated while herding your kids out with minimum spend and psychological trauma.

But stop a moment. Pause and take a breath. For the gift shop – complete with all of its gifts – its heritage lavender fudge, its weird pots covered in William Morris patterns, its soft toys in the shape of animals with tenuous relationship to the experience you’ve just had (I’m thinking of you, The Shard, trying to sell plush Foxes on the back of a sighting during the construction process on the 24th floor) might feel like the final phase of the philistine commercialisation of culture.

But, in actual fact this apparent load of toot is something far richer than we might imagine. A thing with a much longer and nobler history. Sometimes even more significant that the thing we went to see in the first place. The souvenir, we might even argue, is actually the real repository of human culture.

To understand just how deep the shallows of the souvenir run we need to understand the profound relationship between tourism and knowledge, and of our need to fill the void between experience and memory with something.

Tourism is a particular way of experiencing the world. It’s held by most of us – even us tourists – in pretty low regard. If you’re not Captain Cook sailing into Botany Bay, Edmund Hillary at the Everest’s summit, or Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon’s surface its how you’ll have to make do with seeing the world. A ready-packaged experience that feels emptier, more superficial, and disengaged. We see our experience as devalued by the very mechanisms that have delivered us to the point of the experience. ‘Bought experiences don’t count’ wrote Douglas Coupland, summarising the uncomfortable ease of tourism.

You might call it a repressed or inverted Stendhal’s syndrome – the condition identified by Dr. Graziella Magherini, a psychiatrist at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. She noticed that many of the tourists who visited Florence were overcome with anything from panic attacks to bouts of madness that lasted several days. She named the condition after the French novelist Stendhal, who visited Florence in 1817 and soon found himself overwhelmed by the city’s intensely rich legacy of art and history that left him overcome with emotion:

“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

Stendhal’s syndrome is an extreme example of how tourism affects our perception. It overtakes the content and warps our understanding. Tourism, rather than the place we are visiting becomes the experience. It may condense experience into something unbearably dense and rich – as in Stendhal’s case – or it can wreath sites like a trivial fog obscuring the great and the remarkable, cloaking it in the shallow and insistent as we descend the steps of our coach tour to yet another site, thing or place.

Stendhal was experiencing part of the Grand Tour – which became almost obligatory for young gentlemen in the 18th century. Grand Tourists were led across Europe by tutors to study art, history and politics, visiting the sites of antiquity and culture.

The Grand Tour packaged up Classical civilisation and offered it as a experience that could be bought, with the promise that exposure to would transform those who took part. It’s exactly the Grand Tour experience – the way it edits compresses and commodifies Classical culture (the mechanism) – rather than the sites it revealed (its content) was what threw Stendhal into light-headed reverie.

Young aristocrats would return from the Grand Tour a few years older, with a little more experience, a smattering of foreign language, having been immersed in classical culture (and sown their wild oats) with a clutch of mementos in the back of a carriage. These momentos are what we now call souvenirs and included portraits of themselves painted against a backdrop of Roman monuments, authentic ancient antiquities, continental works of art as well as paintings, prints and miniature models of ancient architecture. Indeed, first recorded use of the word ‘souvenir’ is in 1775, just the Grand Tourists were beginning to circulate around Europe.

The demand for these proto-souvenirs resulted in a thriving industry manufacturing objects destined for the stately homes of the touring aristocracy, especially in the hub of the Tour, Italy. Ancient antiquities and continental artworks, acquired as Grand Tour souvenirs, flooded into Britain. The homes of aristocrats began to fill up with vases, sculptures, paintings, objects and artefacts of exotic culture.

These objects-for-Grand-Tourists reveal a very recognisable world of souvenirs that play fast and loose with history.

We see transformations of scales and material. We see small bronze Sphinxes, a golden Venus de Milo, miniature models of the Temples of Castor, Pollux and Vespasian. There are slate models of Cleopatra’s needle at Alexandria, there are figurines of Mercury made in bronze, and plates transfer-decorated with the faces of Roman emperors.

Sometimes, the souvenirs depict things in as-new pristine form – as though frozen in perfection of antiquity, in others they are shown ‘as found’, where the ravages of time are included in the representation – such as an alabaster model of the Coliseum in ruined form.

The souvenir as a personal record of the Tourists presence is also apparent in the portraits of young aristocrats painted by artists such as Pompo Batoni (the volume of tourist trade is indicated by Batonis 250 portraits of English travellers). Their role is similar to the photographs offered at the end of a rollercoaster ride: fixing your image forever as a tourist right at the moment of encounter with experience.

In these early souvenirs, we can see the touch of the modern hand which changes objects uses, materials and scale. They are objects that reveal a particular relationship to antiquity., that reveal as much about the manufacturing and consumption of ideas about the ancient world as they do about the history. Souveniers are a by-product of a new phenomenon, embodying the attributes, attitudes and desires of Grand Tourists.

Souvenirs may have mutated from their Grand Tour origins. Contemporary souvenirs are objects of almost no intrinsic value. Formed from easily mould-able cheap materials, mass-produced and made without craftsmanship. They have no vernacular connection to the place that they celebrate. They are stacked on shelves in multiples at a variety of scales. They seem the dumbest of objects – entirely inarticulate about the moment of moment of encounter with their subject, if anything obscuring the potential moment of encounter. Parasitic tourist-retail flourishes to such an extent that it consumes its host. The tourist is overwhelmed, not by the sublime essence of place like Stendhal back in Florence, but by the familiar relationship and easy transaction of tourist to souvenir as an alternative to the difficult task of comprehending a new and different place, finding solace in the souvenir store. Amongst the shops, stalls and street vendors whose goods are arranged on a blanket, the souvenir-hunting tourist who will find replicas and imitations of buildings and places arranged amongst novelty goods and counterfeit versions of designer sunglasses and handbags. Souvenirs exist amongst the lowest kind of commodities: copies, fakes and jokes.

Souvenirs are perhaps the most pathetic symbols of tourist culture. They expose our total inability to engage with a moment or place at the moment of our encounter. They are decoys, stand-in’s for our encounters with greatness and history, with the remarkable and the unique. Instead we use them like bookmarks that we hope we will help us remember. Except the souvenir and the trappings of tourism are all we can remember in the first place. The souvenir simply proves that yes, you are, or were, there. A way of responding to experience without actually experiencing.

Souvenirs are explicitly not the real thing. They explicitly advertise themselves as not being an artifact of historical or archeological significance themselves. Instead they tell us that they are interpretations of that original real thing, a reference to it, multiple rather than unique. This makes them a strange category of object. Not the thing itself but a reference to another. And, in their attempt to distill, they fold into themselves ideas about the thing they are depicting. In other words, souvenirs are meta objects. Things that are ‘about’ something as well as ‘being’ something. Much more than simple representations of the past they layer multiple values and meanings into one thing.

It’s their very un-realness that makes souvenirs such potent cultural objects. In the act of recording the past, souvenirs show that versions of the past can be manufactured. And through changes in scale, material and techniques such as framing and editing introduce new techniques into their representation. Each new iteration deforms the original. Copies mutate into unrecognizable new formations.

This makes them both document and proposal, propositional memories that allow us to glimpse the future. Souvenirs, as the architects who returned from their Grand Tours might tell us, act like totems of something yet to come. They remind us not of what has happened, but what might, not of places that you have been to, but places as yet un-invented. Maybe then, to give them their proper place in culture, we should start using gift shops as entrances.

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