Friday, 7 October 2016

A MATERIAL ANCHOR: PAPER SOUVENIRS

OBJECT OF THE WEEK

BY: ELEANOR HOWELL-CHRISTENSEN

A selection of the postcards and guides I've collected over the years from museum and gallery gift shops

When I was ten years old, my Dad and I hopped on a train from my small hometown in Hertfordshire, England and, half an hour later, hopped off at Kings Cross Station, London. We took the tube to Green Park and then walked the short distance down Piccadilly until we reached our destination: The Royal Academy of Arts. As excited as I was for the exhibition we were visiting, I was particularly looking forward to what was happening afterwards: a trip to Fortnum and Mason to eat smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, then an hour's browse of the enormous toy store Hamleys. I loved to draw (which was why my art-enthusiast father had orchestrated this day trip) but how could Pre-Raphalite and other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection possibly compete with the stacks of Harry Potter merchandise at Hamleys?

Rather well, it turned out.

One of my most poignant childhood memories is stepping into one of the large rooms at the Royal Academy on that day in 2003 and being completely and utterly overwhelmed by what I saw. Gold-gilded frames, rich and vibrant colours, painting after painting of larger-than-life women with cascades of red or gold or black hair: my ten year old self, who had previously seen art as 'just being able to draw something well', was left awe-struck. She felt something that she'd never felt before: a connection to the paintings, a pull to the objects on display. Suddenly, art meant something different to her. The museum/gallery experience meant something different to her. This moment was important enough to that ten year old that she took home the free exhibition brochure and kept it, storing it safely as if it were treasure. 

That treasure (pictured in the selection above) has since been tacked to several different walls, both in England and in Canada. It's even been mounted and framed, dog-eared as it is, as a kind of emblem of memory and meaning. Since that experience at the Royal Academy, I've made a habit of collecting other such souvenirs from almost every art gallery or museum I've ever visited. I'll go into the gift shop and peruse the wall of postcards, spend the 0.75 dollars/pounds/euros on an image from the collection that particularly inspired me, and then I'll take that postcard home and keep it, sometimes in a box and sometimes on a wall. If I went to a specific exhibit I might even keep the guide too. I have postcards and guides from multiple museums, galleries, and exhibits in multiple countries, and they are some of my most loved possessions. 

Postcards for sale in the gift shop at the National Gallery of Art in London, UK (Source)
But why? Why do I invest so much emotionally in cheap pieces of card? They aren't particularly good representations of the art - I'd be much better off buying $60 prints that won't fade, that are bigger, that I can mount and frame. Gift shops offer hundreds of high quality items that might be 'better' souvenirs and yet, regardless of budget, I return to the postcard wall, I save the tattered brochure. Postcards and guides are the lasting memory capsules of my visit: they're ideas and inspiration and meaning that I can hold in my hand. They're 5x7 inches worth of experience that can be written on, passed from one person to another, slotted between the pages of a book or diary.  Walk into any major museum gift shop and you're almost guaranteed to see a whole wall of them for sale. A postcard is just a piece of card, and yet we buy it and collect it and display it because there is "the attachment of a narrative, describing the collector's experience to a material anchor", and it is this narrative that is "at the heart of the [postcard] souvenir's function" (Hume, 2013). 

We go to a museum or a gallery, we have an experience, and then we buy a postcard or keep the guide because we need a "material anchor" to hold onto that experience. This material anchor is no more than an image or two on a piece of paper, and yet anchor us it does: it represents a whole exhibition, a whole gallery, a whole idea, a whole experience. It becomes a cultural receipt, a record of a transaction of experiences. We keep the postcard for the same reason we keep a receipt: as evidence of an important occurrence that we'll want to revisit in the future. 

My postcard and brochure collection doesn't replace the many museum experiences it represents: it memorializes them. I've curated my own personal museum of memories and ideas in the form of inexpensive bits of paper and card. The collection tells a narrative of a cumulation of experiences, and each piece in the collection tells the story of one particular exhibit, one particular object. 

These cultural receipts and material anchors make up a story that I can read again and again - and so I do. 


References:

Hume, David. (2013). Tourism Art and Souvenirs: The Material Culture of Tourism. New York: Routledge.

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