I WAS HERE: ‘SOUVENIR’ BY ROLF POTTS

Rolf Potts Souvenir 

by Laura Waddell

Recently I was in Paris for the first time in over a decade, and through a sense of obligation, spent the last of my energy walking by the Eiffel Tower, trudging in the mud around its base on a cold and damp March early evening. It was not the tower of my first trip, nor my second, both taken when I was still of an age to thrill at the sight of it sparkling at night. This time I looked at it only briefly, ticking the box, satisfied that I would, at least, not come to regret missing it on my trip if I hadn’t quite relished the experience. It reminded me of those times long past, and the younger self who, if not necessarily more thrilled by a new city’s most classic and cliched tourist landmarks than I still can be, had more brand new experiences lying in wait and iconic scenes to see. And so, while in years previous I had scooped up all manner of postcards and cheap trinkets from Paris emblazoned with its signature, this time I revisited a specialist, expensive tea shop my memory had cultivated an admiration for. In doing so I was swapping my original, adventuring, wide-eyed naivety for the equally indulgent theatricality of playing at the travelling connoisseur. What I took from Paris was still a souvenir, one which reflected my own self in the city as I imagined it, cobbled together from postcard scenes, fond memories, and vanity. It wasn’t really a piece of the city as it really is, which is often largely irrelevant to the desire to acquire souvenirs.

And now, at this stage in my life, what do I want with an Eiffel Tower keyring? That’s a first visit kind of a thing, just like the t-shirt reading Tsukiji Fish Market or the pen with workers eating lunch atop a skyscraper I bought in New York. But oddly, I ended up with one. Vendors pitched around the tower with five-for-a-Euro wares suddenly got up and ran, grabbing their plastic sheet shopfronts in bundles, with France’s intimidatingly armed police in chase. The vendors were grinning, and it seemed like a game, a warning to disperse unregistered street sellers, until one of them was arrested. But as I walked on through the scene, I stepped on a small silver Eiffel Tower keyring that one of them had dropped, and slipped it into my pocket. I’m happy to have it after all.

When I returned from my trip, a parcel was waiting, and inside, unexpectedly, slipped out Souvenir by Rolf Potts, illustrated on the cover with an Eiffel Tower key ring exactly like the one I now (and previously) owned, demonstrating its ubiquitousness as a souvenir object which means less about Paris and more about the owner’s place in time.

These themes are explored in the slim book, part of the Object Lessons series which aims to explore the hidden lives of everyday objects, and which includes Burger, Rust and Luggage among its recent tranche. Taking a broad view of souvenir collecting through history, Souvenir describes early collecting from sites of pilgrimage, where objects taken from holy sites may then themselves be considered blessed or be used as the basis for new shrines. As travelling for religious or commercial reasons gave way to world exploration and the collections which told the tale, such as exotic animal skins or artefacts from far off lands, museum arrays could be more attuned to the individual interests of their early trustees than a comprehensive or insightful testimony to place. Potts dedicates a chapter to human suffering, including body parts removed from scenes of lynching (and often quietly disposed of after the moment), tourist sites coming to terms with grave histories, and the difficulties of balancing souvenirs with sites of human suffering such as Auschwitz or the 9/11 memorial. Shot glasses and ponchos may play a crucial role in funding and, interestingly, have been proven to dissuade visitors from chipping away wood or stone from buildings or land themselves, but Potts acknowledges the tension of knick-knacks rubbing up against the boundaries of taste in otherwise solemn settings.

Mass manufacture of souvenirs in locations other than those they represent is also explored. Potts quotes a 1906 article in American Magazine by John Walker Harrington, who decried an “incipient mania for cherishing the useless” in reference to post cards growing in popularity. Visiting the Vegas Souvenir and Gift Show, the biggest trade event, souvenirs depicting hundreds of locations are hawked to buyers. A picture of the ideal souvenir emerges. Forget artisan, handcrafted gems made by locals. What sells most is cheap and easy to transport. “They just want something that proves they’ve been there,” says exhibitor Al Bass.

What does authenticity have to do with souvenirs? Potts comes to the conclusion that “a Western tourist who collects souvenirs for private, individualistic ends is engaging in an in an authenticity ritual that isn’t really about the object itself… when we collect souvenirs, we do not do so to evaluate the world, but to narrate the self.” He argues that Walter Benjamin’s concept of experience, erfahrung, to describe the authentic, as opposed to erlebnis, superficial, has been disrupted by the post-modern industrial processing of experiences which may encompass the traveller searching for masks made out of plastic or boomerangs made out of bamboo. Souvenir collecting, Potts says, is a status ritual more to do with the social expectations of our home countries than the place we are visiting. He observes that the fashion for picture postcards displaying an idealised, rather than typical, view of a place has not changed with the advent of social media and easily accessible mobile phone cameras.

Potts makes the prescient point that in collecting objects from a foreign country, notions of authenticity are often not only bound up with idealisation or exoticism, but with a sense of the past. To illustrate the point, he remembers how in a visit to a Calcutta market to seek out some more authentic souvenirs than those in gift shops, he found locals buying cheap homeware, while he, the tourist, still gravitated to the carved masks market sellers had anticipated his desire for.

But, for all that Potts pulls back the curtain on souvenir factories and vanities, the souvenir is still cause for celebration. With fondness, he recalls situations represented by the objects displayed on his walls. Carved masks, a small white elephant, a rotor blade from a boat trip. At their best, souvenirs jolt memory, and their meaning can evolve over time as our relationship to the experiences which birthed them matures in perspective. Often they simply say I was here.


Photo credit: By User:AndonicO – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1747086

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