A compendium of craft masquerading as art, art masquerading as craft, and craft extending its middle finger.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Persistence of Memory

In his most recent travel column for Yahoo! News, the delightfully named Rolf Potts expounds on the human need for souvenirs. The human need for souvenirs is nothing new--Potts cites Anatolians who hawked supposed relics of the trojan war to greek tourists. He also mentions that on a visit to Stratford-On-Avon in 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams whipped out their pocketknives and whittled some slivers from a chair that supposedly belonged to the Bard. It's great to picture our founding fathers as Beavis and Butthead-esque.

Unsurprisingly, my own souvenir picks when I'm travelling tend to be craftcentric. Not that the crafts offered up in 99% of shops tend to reflect any sort of purity of the culture--they are entirely driven by what tourists want to buy. That won't stop me from buying a baket made out of telephone wire or a hardwood carved Coca-Cola bottle...they're ingenious adaptations by native cultures. I recently watched a documentary on African Art that talked about how a certain tribe would tend to use traditional tribal masks in rituals that they performed for tourists, and newer, different masks for their own dances and rituals. The newer masks reflect their current, ever-changing beliefs, and are more garishly painted and decorated. The newer masks just don't look... well... serious and traditional enough to the tourist eye. Which is purer? Undoubtedly the newer, more garish masks.

It's fun to examine our tendencies with regard to souvenirs--they are embodiments of our own experiences, and should be regarded as such, not as samples of "pure" cultures from which they came. My favorite souvenir? A totally debased, yet totally detailed laser-etched Rosetta Stone paperweight from the British Museum. I could have brought back all manner of postcards or weighty books, but my wonder at the paperweight surpasses them all.



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