Souvenir (Object Lessons) by Rolf Potts

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Review by Liz Dexter

This book is part of the Object Lessons series, which exists to highlight the hidden lives of ordinary things. This one is about travel souvenirs brought home by fairly standard people; other volumes consider, for example, rust, dust, traffic and luggage. If they’re anything like this one, they’re a series to rush out and collect!

So this book turns out to be a short but excellent and perfectly formed guide tracing the history of travel souvenirs from prehistoric times (yes, really – items from shrines and memorials have always been a Thing) to the modern day, when your Eiffel Tower from Paris is as likely to have been made in China as in France … but, of course, it turns out to have been ever thus. It looks at the fundamental issues: why people wanted to collect things from their travels, what they actually collected and the industries that have always grown up around this. We discover quite early on that back in the day, the amphora a Roman traveller bought from a holy place was very likely to have been mass-produced and shipped out from Alexandria, just the name painted on differentiating it from thousands of its fellows.

It’s not just a history, but a philosophical work, pondering how these items often “serve to validate the existence of a distance, once-imagined reality” – we are almost deciding what we want to bring home before we get there, and we’ve all done that, haven’t we, eschewing the plastic table mats and polyester scarves of the local, disappointing market for an artisanal bowl that encapsulates what we think Spain should be. Potts is constantly interrogating his own old desire to collect native and tribal masks – was this an innocent impulse, a need to keep a record of times he’s spent in various places (probably not, as most of them, he admits, are divorced from any direct experience he’s had in his own extensive travels), or an outcome of the need to be “someone who collects native and tribal masks”? He’s much more honest in his choosing of a few pieces from his late aunt’s collections and what he got out of them seems more authentic, in the end.

Although the book is stated to be about individual collectors, there’s a chapter on how the collections of people on the Grand Tour and the craze for cabinets of curiosity that soon outgrew their owners’ homes became the basis of several museum collections. There’s also a chapter on the dark and unpleasant history of murder and particularly lynching memorabilia – this does not overshadow the whole book and I think it’s appropriate to include the more macabre aspects of travel souvenirs.

There are lovely line drawings illustrating some of the items the author has, and this is overall a thoughtful and highly interesting, if a little brief, rumination on what turns out to be a fascinating topic.

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Liz Dexter blogs about books and running and other slightly random stuff at She has exactly no masks hanging on her walls, but tries to collect a CD of a local band from wherever she travels … leading to a shelf of oddities on the CD rack.

Rolf Potts, Souvenir (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). 978-1501329418, 160 pp., ill. Hardback

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