In the same way that I claim that the books in my library help me remember “how I know what I know,” we may say that souvenirs help us to remember “how we know who we are and what we have experienced.” We cannot hold all our experiences in our head. Indeed, we forget the vast majority of our lived life, and for good reason. What would be the point of remembering every instance of brushing our teeth? For better or for ill, our active memories return to formative experiences, the important moments that define who we are.
But our memories are also fragile. As our experiences accumulate over time, ones we thought were important at one point are pushed aside in favor of others that, for whatever reason, command more of our attention. But these forgotten memories never really disappear. They continue to exert their influence on us. This process of forgetting is a precondition for the joy one feels when we dig around a seldom visited basement or attic, unearth a stored box of personal mementos, and experience the rush of memories brought about by rediscovering the treasures held inside. These moments, much like getting together with an old friend, are grounding. They remind us of where we came from and consequently of who we are.
Souvenirs as we traditionally define them are self-consciously acquired to help us perform this kind of memory extraction. We acquire them in anticipation of a future time when they will help us remember a present moment that we believe is, and will continue to be, significant. Even more, when we display this souvenir, we invite others to ask us about how we acquired it and why. Souvenirs are not just about triggering internal memory, but also about projecting who we are to others. They become extensions of our personalities in material form and help us to define who we are both to ourselves and to other people.
Tourism is not a necessary component of souvenirs, although the two often go hand in hand. Souvenirs also often show up at events that are deemed important but may not necessarily be a part of a trip. We purchase souvenir programs at Broadway shows, ballets, circuses, or other performances so that we can read more about the performers and remember attending the event. We buy t-shirts or hats at rock concerts both to commemorate the experience and to boast by wearing them that we were among the select few to be in the audience.
Souvenirs can serve as a measure of experience. When we purchase a souvenir to memorialize an event, we believe that what we witnessed is so important that we need to shell out money to help us remember it, to help us relive it in some way after the fact. If we are not compelled to buy one—or perhaps none are offered for sale—we may implicitly be saying to ourselves that forgetting what we just experienced will have little impact on our lives.
Souvenirs can become a means of shaping or elevating an experience, especially if the souvenir is itself an object of desire. I once watched a segment on The Antiques Roadshow that featured a face jug. I had never heard about or seen one before, but after learning about it, I knew I had to have one. Face jugs are just that: pottery jugs that have faces molded onto them. The faces are often scary—one explanation is that the design is meant to deter children from drinking the moonshine that may be stored in them—and they usually project strong and intriguing personalities. Enslaved African-Americans mainly from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia started the craft in the mid-1800s, and artisans continue to produce them today.
Years after learning about face jugs, I finally got my chance to acquire one during a trip to Asheville, NC with extended family members. As luck would have it, the American Folk Art and Framing store in Asheville was having a folk jug festival right at the time of our visit. The hunt for and purchase of my face jugs shaped our vacation in Asheville as much as visiting the Biltmore and attending live music. In this case, the souvenir itself became a key driver in shaping the experience of our trip—all of us talked a lot about face jugs before we even found our way into the shop and spent lots of time evaluating each one. Today, the two face jugs we bought sit in a prominent place in the foyer of our house where they both remind us of the trip and project to others elements of our personality, that we are the kind of people who take delight in such historically odd objects.
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Souvenirs are an important facet of tourism today—indeed the presence of souvenir shops could be said to be a precondition for defining a tourist destination—but they may be heading towards obsolescence. When my daughters were young, we spent a lot of time walking through souvenir shops looking for the just-right object that would hold their memories from that trip. But over time my daughters became more interested in using the cameras on their phones to take the perfect selfie in the perfect setting. Rather than find a replica of the Eiffel Tower to purchase, they now spent time trying to position themselves to take a photograph of them seemingly placing their index finger on the top of the Eiffel Tower to post on their Snapchat account.
Younger generations now seem reticent to burden themselves with objects that are environmentally suspect and need to be packed away and transported whenever they move. Instead, the electronic souvenir in the form of the selfie does not take up space, is personalized, is free, and is easily shareable. Will the mechanism of how we remember our travels change as we head further into the digital future?
As we shift more of our outsourced memories into a digital environment, it is perhaps time to think about how our material world works to shape and, in many ways, create our lives. An exploration of souvenirs can tell us a lot about how we interact with the world. It also begs us to consider what will happen if we rely on social media companies like Facebook not only to store our memories, but to serve them up to us occasionally via an algorithm to help us remember who we are (and to profit on such a service). The Souvenir Project will be a place to think reflectively on the role that our material existence plays in how we remember our past, how we think about ourselves, and how, instead of relying on endless streams of zeroes and ones, we can better control the creation and representation of ourselves in the physical world.