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Museum of the personal:

the souvenir and nostalgia


Chapter 4 - What is a souvenir?

So far many aspects which characterise the social relations of the souvenir have been presented, with the key aspects bearing meaning are identified as - fetishism, nostalgia, the processes of exchange or transaction and the significance of memory and time. In this final chapter, the souvenir object is addressed in terms of its material characteristics and its specific context to tourism. The definition of the word souvenir appears in most dictionaries as "a memento, a keepsake."[107] This description does not refer to its material composition, its mode of production, or its origins as an object. Instead, these definitions allude to the importance of the souvenir as memento mori, a memorialisation or symbol of past experience - an event and/or place.

It would be simple to merely allude to the realm of kitsch, and this is a concern when dealing with the aesthetics of the commercially produced souvenir. The interpretation offered in this analysis of the souvenir is defined by a relationship to the possessor. It represents to the owner a symbol or talisman of the past that has meanings and narratives constructed around it. Because of this, it is inherently nostalgic as it represents a connection to a past moment in time. This is not to say that all relations to the past are nostalgic, but as demonstrated there are great implications for the role of nostalgia, in terms of the souvenir object - regardless of its material 'origins'.

Souvenirs generally fall into two distinct types: a souvenir of a place, or a souvenir of an event. These types sometimes overlap, and once purchased both aspects are considered intrinsic to the narrative of the object. For instance, someone may say 'I bought this key ring at Stonehenge last summer' or 'I bought this tee-shirt at Big Day Out last year.' As contended earlier, it is obvious that a mass-produced kitsch materiality limited to the realm of tourism does not bound the souvenir as an object. Souvenirs can also be precious objects from the start¾for instance souvenir commodities from jewelry factories and gem fields. Rather, the souvenir can take any material form as long as the relationship with the possessor is intact. By this, I mean that there is no separation or rupture of the narrative cast by the possessor regarding the object. This relationship is at once fetishistic, nostalgic and above all capable of generating a narrative or discourse with the aid of the owner. Without the narrative, the objects meaning is invisible, not able to be articulated without the possessor's input, its role as a stand in or partial object is lost.

Mass produced souvenirs take many forms, many of which are replicated and available anywhere where mass tourism is found. Take for instance, the humble Snow Dome, it can be found in Alice Springs and Amsterdam, London, Paris and New York, anywhere where there is a souvenir shop. It can commemorate the changing of a century, represent a landscape, building or monument and celebrate a royal wedding. Inside the dome we see the subject of interest - the place intended for future memorial, be it the Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace, Uluru or the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Many souvenirs like the snow dome, post card and teaspoon lend themselves readily to a process of collection. These items provide a legitimate reason to desire to travel to other tourist destinations, or, to procure gifts from family and friends. In this case, I am looking primarily at the social circumstances that lead the tourist to their destination, and the compulsion that motives them to purchase such commodities. Steiner argues that:

"Viewed in the context of other modes of mass production - the circulation of popular printed iconography, the proliferation of cheap cotton fabrics in the industrial revolution, or the seriality characteristic of post modern networks of cultural expression - the logic of the tourist at industry may be seen to be grounded in broader discourses of cultural truths and authenticities typically forged in the nexus of production and consumption in mass cultural and economic markets."[108]

Aside from that logic, this type of collecting expands the narrative assigned to the singular object to belonging to a personal grand tour of sorts. Within the context of the collection each object has its history of provenance, one etched into memories of the collector. Even if not recorded categorically, as are the official metaphors of history and culture, these processes are apparent in the documentation and accessioning of museum exhibits belonging to the personal realm. The process of prioritisation and privilege that exists on a grand scale in state and privately owned collections is virtually replicated in the accessioning of objects into a personal collection. These acquisition determinants depend on a number of variants, these being budget constraints, individual tastes and a sense of aesthetics. Also, to a certain extent patronage (as gifts can qualify here), and last but not least, the relevance to the remainder of collection.

Arguably, the photograph would have to be the most common form of souvenir collected by the tourist (and possibly overall) as a medium to document significant events and places for future reference. The photograph itself carries much theoretical baggage with it when considered as an object of discursive analysis, particularly in relationship to 'seeing' and the role of the viewer. For the purpose of this research project, the photograph will not be analysed in these terms, or indeed in regard to the endless proliferation of discussions regarding the photographs status as an 'original' or 'copy'. These are indeed issues within this project, but they present themselves through the subject - the relevance to the owner rather than the object of inquiry, the souvenir. Also, the role of spectacle and spectatorship is embedded in discussions regarding the photograph is valuable, and though relevant to this discussion may only be mentioned briefly, as it is of peripheral concern. It is the processes of spectatorship and the gaze in the tourist, which is a focus of this paper.

A photograph is some ways is doubly powerful in the scenario of tourism, as it is a representation, perceived and visualised though the eyes of the tourist - a witnessing of a site which extends beyond the vernacular of everyday context of home. The role of the tourist is defined as cultural voyeur, arriving with a list of expectations arising from the anticipation of the journey, and preconceived notions of the site constructed from his/her desire (with help from the travel agency and media). John Fiske, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner make this observation regarding the process of tourist photography in Myths of Oz: reading popular culture, stating that:

"The photograph is a symbolic enactment of this: each slide or print is a piece of our world which we take home with us. The camera may be the final agent of colonisation that constructs the rest of the world and its people as the picturesque to be captured and possessed by the photographer/tourist."[109]

The photograph, in the case of this research paper is to be pursued primarily within its role as a souvenir - a keepsake. It is what the tourist wants to remember when they return home, not the clashes and collusion with reality, those are forgotten - edited out of the image and story. This is to say that the photograph is not exempt from various notions of desire and fetishism, which allude to a discussion of, or perception of the real, which arises from discussions on spectatorship. Essentially, I am interested in dealing with photography's capacity to hold nostalgic significance for the possessor. These photographic objects comprise of holiday happy snaps, family photographs and of course the postcard. Fiske, Hodge and Turner also assert that "the family album is so much more than a collection of images of a visually colonised landscape: it is an imaginative statement of pleasure, pride, possession and identity."[110] Also, they claim that "the view constructs and possesses the viewer just as much as it is constructed by him or her."[111] Further contending that "looking is both enactment of possession and a construction of identity for the looker."[112]

The issue of spectacle is not reserved to the form of the photograph or the desire for souvenir objects it is also, as I mentioned, complicit in the notion of tourism. Tourism as it is understood in contemporary society developed en masse with the rise of the middle class (bourgeois) and the industrial revolution, which made consumption central to bourgeois identity and that which characterises the 'modern age.' As time has moved on, and as the world has become increasingly pervaded and manipulated by capitalist ideals, the holiday has become the flip side of working life. As such, the holiday is an occurrence which has spread to the lives of ordinary workers in industrailised countries, with the only limits to the possibility of travel being limited to either financial or time constraints. It has been well documented that the more technologically advanced and affluent (generally speaking) a nation is, the more capacity its citizens have to travel.

It needs to be clearly stated that, the business of mass produced souvenirs is totally reliant on the demands of the tourism industry. Its objects are molded to the desires of the tourist and are seemingly often made away from the site of tourist consumption. It is not uncommon to go to a range of tourist destinations, only to discover that the souvenirs are identical and produced in places which have no relation to the tourist site, beyond the image represented in the object.

The tourist as a demographic is not overly concerned with the industrial history of the object. Mainly because, tourism is a global process which ironically, does not impinge on the power or authority of the souvenir to generate stories of that captured moment. The apprehension of the object by the tourist effectively silences the other end of its reality- its materiality as a mass-produced and generic product, once purchased and claimed into the possession of the tourist. Even in cases where souvenirs are locally manufactured handicrafts, the market is factored not by a need to preserve culture, but to comply with the demands and desires of the tourist who becomes the possessor of these objects and future narrators of their material importance. This is of course, motivated by the desire of tourism to maintain a profitable industry. It is also normal practice for events and cultural displays, produced for the benefit of tourism to exist separately to the customs and rituals that are only for the eyes of the community. This has been well documented in a diverse range of texts primarily investigating Aboriginal and American Indian cultures. There are pros and cons in this cultural and financial exchange, with one of the benefits being that the fostering of culture assists not only financial gain, but also self-esteem for the community.

The role of the gaze is paramount to understanding the process of mass tourism, as is the relationship of the souvenir to notions of desire and fetishism. John Urry's text, The Tourist Gaze is an investigation into the tourist gaze and its objects. He defines the activity of tourism as a separate existence from the mundane and everyday work environment. Stating that "the gaze therefore presupposes a system of social activities and signs which locate particular tourist practices, not in terms of some intrinsic characteristics but through the contrasts implied with non-tourist social practices particularly those based within the home and paid work."[113] These spaces are distanced from the everyday, which is why they are ultimately objectified. He goes on to argue:

"Such practices involve the notion of 'departure', of a limited breaking with established routines and practices of everyday life and allowing one's senses to engage with a set of stimuli that contrast with the everyday and the mundane. By considering the typical objects of the tourist gaze one can use these to make sense of elements of the wider society with which they are contrasted."[114]

There is evidence to suggest that what be at play here are varying notions and perceptions of time - work and leisure, home and away. But the experience of the tourist is not a great leap into the unknown, the unchartable. This is not the experience of the adventurer or explorer who seeks out what has not been represented or named. This traveler's interest in the journey, is the process of the journey itself - a journal would perhaps be the main form of souvenir for these types of travelers. What also appears in this context of travel is a far more literal approach to documenting experience. These days there are also available tours for adventure travelers - remember that tragic incident in Switzerland last year? However, this distinction between types of tourism is rather dubious, considering the following quote from Steiner in Unpacking Culture:

""Anti-tourism" as defined by Buzard, corresponds almost exactly to the discourse of authenticity that cleaved the community of consumers of art commodities into two opposing camps of fine arts cognoscenti and populist collections of tourist art. The irony here, however, is that the possibility of evading commoditization (sic) was as illusionary as the efforts of Victorian intellectuals to identify themselves as 'travelers' rather than 'tourists'."[115]

What the tourist desires is an affirmation of the site they are witnessing via a previously constructed identity of the place encountered, one that has been idealised, marketed and propagated by tourism. For instance, Urry comments that "the gaze is constructed through signs, and tourism involves the collection of signs. When tourists see two people kissing in Paris what they capture in the gaze is 'timeless romantic Paris'. When a small village in England is seen, what they gaze upon is the 'real olde England'"[116]

Before the tourist arrives at a site they are bombarded by a plethora of texts, images and assumptions about the place - they are decidedly expectant on recognising these things. Without witnessing these signifiers of place, the tourist's experience is somehow devalued, because it is not considered to be a 'true' acquaintance with the location, not to mention disorientating with no markers to signify the site. It could be argued that there is a notion of the universal understanding in certain images or symbols of a place. When I went to New York several years ago, other travelers at the hostel where I stayed were surprised that I didn't go to the Statue of Liberty or to the top of the Empire State Building. For some reason my lack of enthusiasm for such sites bothered these people - as if I wasn't really seeing the 'real' New York City. I found this ironic as, in my opinion I saw the fundamental 'New York' - steam coming out of the pavements, Times Square, the Whitney, Metropolitan and Guggenheim museums. This type of validating process, evident in discourses on travel brings into question the 'authenticity' of such orchestrated tourist experiences, and, signifies the importance of the tourist gaze to the constructed identities of such sites. Fiske, Hodge and Turner argue in Myths of Oz that:

"But besides finding their meaning in what they reject, or leave behind, holidays must also be understood in terms of what they promise. A trip is both a trip away and a trip towards."[117]

These recognisible images play out a complex array of signs and signifiers to the tourist, who are heavily reliant on and burdened with information, already received to compare and map their experiences. The question here is, are they actually engaging with the object of their desire, say Paris or merely recognising a poor copy - a national and provincial stereotype, especially manufactured for their consumption by the state, aided by the tourism industry for the benefit of economic globalisation? It would be fair to suggest the affirmative in light of the promotion and hype surrounding the Olympic Games in Sydney. For around two years now there has been a barrage of images intended to 'sell' Australia as a tourist destination for the Olympic Games. It is a calculated strategy employed by the tourism industry to capitalise on whatever devices it can, as it invents the narrative of national and regional identity to the would-be tourist. In The tourist gaze, Urry argues:

"The tourist is interested in everything as a sign in itself.... All over the world the unsung armies of semioticians, the tourists, are fanning out in search of the signs of Frenchness, typical Italian behavior, exemplary Oriental scenes, typical American thruways (sic), traditional English pubs'."[118]

Urry firmly locates this practice as originating from the tourist industry as a means of securing business:

"An array of tourist professionals attempt to reproduce ever-new objects of the tourist gaze. These objects are located in a complex and ever changing hierarchy. This depends upon the interplay between, on the one hand, competition between interests involved in the provision of such objects and, on the other hand, changing class, gender, generational distinctions of taste within the potential population of visitors."[119]

The question of authenticity is crucial on such processes as the accumulation of souvenirs, as the constructed reality of such sites remove the consumer from the everyday reality of such places. The mass tourist experience is very different to that of an independent traveler who does not need to attend souvenir shops to validate the experience of site. It (the process of tourism) is artificially constructed from the start, from the glossy pages of travel brochures to the special group charters to the specific localities. Throughout this type journey the experience is continually mediated, legitimised and controlled by the tour operator who guides their clientele though the bevy of signs which are representative of the site. Scholars often refer to this scenario as the 'pseudo-event.' Boorstin's analysis was one of the earliest formulations of the pseudo-event. He contested, partly anticipating Baudrillard that contemporary Americans "cannot experience 'reality' directly but thrive on pseudo-events."[120]

These phenomena leads to a system where the site itself becomes less relevant to the constructed and idealised image brought about by tourism. One only has to witness advertising for the Olympic games, to see how attracting tourists incurs a 'responsibility' to represent what the perceived tourist desires. It is a well documented fact that most tourists come to Australia to see native flora and fauna and the outback, a theme repeated in the publicity for Olympic tours, aside from sport of course. The pseudo-event is a highly contrived form of entertainment, as well as a critical element of tourism.

"Isolated from the lived reality of the site and the local people, the mass tourist travels in guided groups and finds pleasure in inauthentic contrived attractions, gullibly enjoying the pseudo-events and disregarding the 'real' world outside. As a result tourist entrepreneurs and the indigenous populations are induced to ever-more extravagant displays for the gullible observer who is thereby further removed from the local people. Over time, via advertising and the media, the images generated of different tourist gazes come to constitute a closed self-perpetuating system of illusions which provide the tourist with the basis for selecting and evaluating potential places to visit."[121]

The issue of authenticity is vexed in this situation. This closed system of illusions or signs evident in tourism is, of course, removed from reality. But the souvenir represents a talisman of the event and as such authenticates the object as a signifier, validating the experience and site for the tourist because of their present inhabitation of the site. This appears regardless how in any terms, removed they may be from the everyday reality in such places. It is ironic that whilst the tourist desires 'authenticity' of a place, this is the exact thing which is perpetually deferred and absent through the process of tourism, ultimately creating an experience of yearning for that missing thing, substituted by the souvenir. John Urry comments that:

"All tourists for MacCannell embody a quest for authenticity, and this quest is a modern version of the universal human concern with the sacred. The tourist is a kind on contemporary pilgrim, seeking authenticity in other 'times' and other 'places' away from that person's everyday life. Particular fascination is shown by tourists in the 'real lives' of others which somehow possess a reality which is hard to discover in people's own experiences."[122]

Objectifying the working life of others in the case of tourism offer points of commonality and difference to the tourist. The process of spectatorship offers a mode for the tourist to ultimately analyse their own identity, in contrast to that of the cultures being scrutinised. The purchase of a souvenir affirms to the tourist that they are not currently existing within the parameters of the normative and mundane associated with the home and work environment. Souvenir commodities embody that imagined space of desire, the nostalgic memento of what was a previously process of marketing, packaging and advertising. This is quite a different process of collecting souvenirs which are not commercially available, say for instance a piece of dirt from the ground of the world final ground, or keeping every postcard you receive, or writing down everything you do and see in your travels.

This type of souvenir is perhaps closer to an "authentic" experience because not only it is still tangible evidence, it has the added benefit of having some sort of sentimental and autobiographical attachment, all of which are rendered as nostalgic in the duration of time. To some tourists however, this type of documenting and diarising of events is considered equally as significant as the acquisition of commercially available souvenirs. For example many holiday makers collect the coasters from pubs and hotels, primarily because they are free but also because the object represents good times spent out and about whilst away.

For the tourist the experience of time is one of leisure, which possibly assists in developing the fascination they have for the everyday working life of the local people. Their curiosity ultimately leads to the creation of sites designed specifically to cater for their desire to observe the labour of others. For example - sites such as the Big Pineapple and Big Banana both have farms on the site which provide for some of the merchandise, though much of the souvenir shops are still crammed with kitsch spoons, trays and pencils. There are endless examples of these sorts of places everywhere from Batik factories in Java, to tours of breweries the world over. Even though the tourist gains admission to such sites, the real inner working of the factory, farm and its workers remains largely anonymous and invisible to these visitors, their vision guided. This is especially interesting given the role of commodity fetishism in the tourist - souvenir relationship.

Given that the persona of commodity fetishism is reliant on certain social behaviors it is not surprising to find that Dean MacCannell focuses on the character of these social relations that emerge from the fascination people have for the work of others. He also notes that "such 'real lives' can only be found backstage and are not immediately evident to us."[123] This is because "the gaze of the tourist will involve an obvious intrusion into people's lives, which would be generally unacceptable."[124] In order for this all to succeed as a venture, "the people being observed and local tourist entrepreneurs gradually come to construct backstage in a contrived and artificial manner. These 'Tourist spaces' are thus organised around what MacCannell calls 'staged authenticity' (1973)."[125] This description acts in contrast to Boorstin's notion of the 'pseudo event', primarily because in MacCannell's version of this scenario, the artificiality of the site of the constructed tourist attraction is a direct result of the collaboration between communities and tourism in the mutual interests of profit and investment. He argues in contrast with Boorstin that, "pseudo-events result from the social relations of tourism and not from an individual search for the inauthentic."[126]

The social relations evident in tourism and the souvenir are particularly significant when you also add the heady scent of nostalgia to this already over signified recipe. Quite often these objects are collected to aid the future and ongoing expansion of the personal museum. David Lowenthal comments that although people are normally aware that the actual past is irrecoverable, "memory and history, relic and replica leave impressions so vivid, so tantalizingly, that we cannot help but feel deprived."[127] He goes on to state that "this discontent takes many forms: a devotion to relics, the treasuring of antiques and souvenirs, a tendency to value what is old simply because it is old, the rejection of change."[128] Maintaining the links to the past has an array of purposes and benefits to the collector though "the surviving past's most essential and pervasive benefit is to render the present familiar."[129] By signifying the past we are able to discern the present and, as Lowenthal suggests "the perceived identity of each scene and object stems from past acts and expectations, from a history of involvement."[130] For Lowenthal this is because "every object, every grouping, every view, every view is intelligible largely because previous encounters and tales heard, books read, pictures seen, have made them familiar."[131] Objects which are not familiar and recognisable, those that "lack any familiar elements or configurations remain incomprehensible,"[132] cannot be described or located as part of the construction of narrative, as it exists beyond the vernacular of the particular collector or tourist.

As much as tourism depends and expects tourists to consume and produce its commodities, souvenirs and sites, it is relying on these sets of social relations to realise its goal of profitable business and investment. Boorstin in his analysis of the pseudo-event may have touched on the contrived nature of such sites and events, but overlooked why such systems come into being in the first place. Whilst MacCannell does centre on aspects of social relations inherent in tourism, it is Lowenthal in his treatise on the past, who recognises the important of souvenirs to the formulation of identity and home. The contingent elements of loss, embellishment, memory and the idealisation of the past are all significant in terms of the role assigned to souvenir by the possessor.