(Object Lessons)

About 'Souviners'

For as long as people have traveled to distant lands, they have brought home objects to certify the journey. More than mere merchandise, these travel souvenirs take on a personal and cultural meaning that goes beyond the object itself. Drawing on several millennia of examples — from the relic-driven quests of early Christians, to the mass-produced tchotchkes that line the shelves of a Disney gift shop — Rolf delves into a complicated history that explores issues of authenticity, cultural obligation, market forces, human suffering, and self-presentation. More than just objects, souvenirs are a personalized form of folk storytelling that enable people to make sense of the world and their place in it.


Rolf Potts writes with the soul of an explorer and a scholar's love of research. Much like the objects that we bestow with meaning, this book carries a rich, lingering resonance. A gem.”
— Andrew McCarthy, actor, director and author of The Longest Way Home (2013)


In this slender but engrossing study of the phenomenology of souvenirs, Rolf Potts pinpoints the strange duality of travel, for where you 'go' is rarely identical to where you go. After reading it, I'll never be able to look at a Statue of Liberty key chain, Grand Canyon postcard, or Eiffel Tower ashtray in quite the same way again. If you love to travel, this book is essential.” 

—  Tom Bissell, journalist and author of Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve (2016)


It has been a recurring daydream for me, as I've written this book, that it will one day be stocked in gift-shop stalls around the world, from the British Museum in London, to Disneyland in Anaheim, to Bangkok's Chatuchak Market. That way, should the breadth of souvenir options on offer overwhelm a given tourist, he or she can simply go meta and commemorate the travel experience with this book, Souvenir.

In a way this is a souvenir-guidebook of sorts — not a rundown of what items to collect, or where to find them, but an exploration of why we seek out these objects as we travel, what they have represented to travelers in past ages, and how we use them to narrate our lives.

My earliest memory of collecting souvenirs goes back to age seven, when I took a series of Amtrak trains to Chicago with my family. It was the furthest I'd ever traveled from my south-central Kansas home, and the giant Midwestern metropolis full of skyscrapers, museums, and traffic jams struck me as wonderfully exotic. I was particularly enamored by the ocean-like expanse of Lake Michigan, and one afternoon, while walking along a pebbled lakeside beach, I happened upon a large white clamshell ribbed with brownish-yellow stripes. Thrilled at this discovery, I squirreled the clamshell away in my knapsack, and it eventually found a place of honor in my bedroom. Over time, this shell became the centerpiece of a makeshift shrine that held other travel souvenirs — pins, coins, pebbles, embroidered patches, figurines, ticket stubs.

As I grew older I added to this piecemeal souvenir collection without thinking much about why I had been drawn to the items in question. Sometimes my travel souvenirs were found objects; other times these objects had been purchased from vendors or given to me as gifts. It wasn't until I moved to Asia to work as an English teacher in my mid-twenties that I realized how each of these souvenirs hinted at narratives that were far more complex — far more connected to my core sense of self — than I'd previously assumed.

My moment of epiphany came in the summer of 2001, when, having just purchased a small shamanistic mask in Ulan Bator, I realized I had no idea why I'd felt compelled to buy it. The mask in question — a yellow-painted visage of a long-bearded old man (known as Tsaghan Ebügen in Mongolian) — was the sixth ceremonial mask I'd purchased in as many countries since arriving in Asia five years earlier. In China, I'd bought an ornate white opera mask; in Japan I'd bought a demonic-looking red mask used in Gigaku dance drama; in Korea I'd bought a black Nojang mask used in satirical talchum plays.

As it happened, I had not attended (nor developed a particular interest in) any talchum plays, Gigaku dance-drama, or Chinese operas. Furthermore, I later discovered that the red-green monster mask I'd acquired in Thailand had been manufactured in Bali, and the moon-shaped ebony mask I'd bought in the Philippines bore more similarities to Mexican flea-market craft than Filipino art traditions. None of the masks were big enough to cover a person's face, and I'd acquired them not at cultural events, but at gift shops, outdoor markets, and (in the case of the Chinese opera mask) a massive department store.

So had my souvenir-collecting ritual devolved into a superficial consumer ritual that had little to do with the cultures I was visiting? By a certain superficial way of looking at it: Yes, I'd reckon it had. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that few of the souvenirs I'd collected over the course of my life had been straightforward signifiers of a specific place, culture, or personal experience. Even the clamshell I'd plucked from the shore of Lake Michigan all those years earlier had never purely been about remembering Chicago. Though as an adult I recognized it as a freshwater mollusk carapace, I'd spent most of my childhood calling it a "seashell." As it happened, this found clamshell wasn't just a memento of the wonder I'd felt at seeing Lake Michigan; it was — for me, as a kid — a totem of faith that I might one day travel beyond the landlocked prairies of my youth, see an actual ocean, collect a real seashell, and journey outward to farther shores.

Similarly, my compulsion to collect ceremonial masks while I wandered Asia was tied to something deeper and more aspirational: something that would continue to transform for me over time, and come to resonate in ways I can still sense today; something universal, even as it felt personal; something interwoven with the way we all try to make sense of the world, and our place in it.

This subtle mystery — this aura — underpinning souvenirs (and the ways we collect them) is a phenomenon I will explore in depth as this book travels through four millennia of human history before finding its way back to that moment in Mongolia, and everything it might have represented.