Conservation news

Souvenirs and the Museum Store: Icons of Culture and Status to Go




Souvenirs and the Museum Store: Icons of Culture and Status to Go


Souvenirs and the Museum Store: Icons of Culture and Status to Go
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
May 6, 2005

People have long been collectors and travelers. Both roles have been and continue to be modes in which humans make sense of the world. Travel and collecting have come together in an often problematic and sometimes troubling tangible manifestation known as souvenirs. These hybridized and profoundly diverse goods appear everywhere, yet their reasons for production are always identical. As commercial objects, souvenirs function as commodities intended to bring the producer profit. Even in the space of the museum, the souvenir is present; yet here, given certain socio-cultural connotations associated with the institution, the souvenir’s presence in the museum store takes on new meanings. By addressing and investigating the cultural phenomenon of the museum store, I hope to uncover something about the nature of commercial intrusion into the arena of education, culture and history. Additionally, I will review the motives and meanings behind souvenirs in this context and how museums use the inventory and organization of commercial space within the institution to represent itself and the works and artifacts contained by it as an aid in marketing exhibits and trinkets alike.

Museums, at the most basic level, provide homes for objects. The range is vast, yet each object is linked by a conscious decision made on its behalf to be preserved and displayed—rescued from obscurity and otherwise certain death by obsolescence. Indeed, the very livelihood of objects and museums requires their coexistence. Roger Silverstone best expresses this interdependence in his essay, The Medium is the Museum.

Objects’ status is revealed and supported by display and their organization, in turn, produces their meanings according to position and relation to other objects. The museum artifact’s meaning becomes fixed, in that the preserved object has reached its final resting-place (Ibid. 163). Museums, as educational institutions of culture and history, designate and exercise a kind of authority in the sense of self-contained aura as well as through the objects housed by them.

Conversely, souvenirs are placed on no such pedestal. The OED defines souvenir as the following: “a remembrance, a memory, a slight trace of something. A token of remembrance (usually a small article of some value bestowed as a gift) that reminds one of a person, place or event” (2934). Souvenirs, in the first instance, simplify and distort culture by reducing it to a few objects, mere “slight traces” of what they are representing. The process of likening anything to any other thing is to subvert its identity, because in describing a thing, one must relate it to something it is not. However, museum souvenirs strive to do more, to depict a culture via a few icons easy to recognize out of context. Souvenirs are an attempt to substitute objects for culture. For the souvenir collector, no culture exists until it is represented by objects. Representation is a presentation of a specific view of reality and the presenter responsible for that creation overdetermines every aspect of it with his or her own socio-cultural-historical bias. The act of representation is a highly feminizing process that imposes identity and meaning on particular entities. With souvenirs, representations are shaped to fit the consuming tourist’s gaze, although that gaze, in turn, shapes the representation. The gaze is a perspective constructed by social codes and mores designated from birth and by one’s cultural system. Foucault says these codes that govern our perceptions are invisible to those within the cultures they underlie.

The visitor in the museum store, like the tourist, “is a consumer away from home” (Judd and Fainstein 14). “Satisfaction for the visitor and profit for the investor require that places [and cultures, in the case of museums] become transformed into objects” (ibid.). Jean Baudrillard offers further support for this claim in his book, The System of Objects, “Every object transforms something” (4). The souvenir solidifies and materializes the experience of the visit. Returning home without a memento threatens the memory of experience.

A growing trend in museum visitation patterns documented by theorists and from personal observation is the habit of visitors to attend a museum for one specific exhibit. This practice seems to hierarchisize the importance of exhibits and objects within any given museum. The experience is no longer about totality or exposure to a wide range of concepts and modes, but rather is selectively dictated by subjectivity and personal preference and by the organization of the specific exhibit. The visitor self-selects his education and the volume of his receptive sphere of culture. Through the powerful vehicle of ‘event marketing’ museums are promoted as institutions and seek to draw visitors from all areas that might not typically visit the museum or even the city where the museum is located. The promotion of a single ‘star exhibit’ acts as a magnet, selling the institution as a whole. In turn, the museum store often features souvenirs based on that given exhibit to immortalize and summarize the experience for the visitor.


In this vein, the museum store has become a destination within and of itself. Instead of the often monolithic and overtly didactic and somewhat threatening impression given by the museum itself, the commercial space of the store offers a kind of refuge for the less savvy or aggressive museum-goer. The store and the practices and expected behavioral norms of shopping that occur within in it are familiar to the average visitor and consumer and there seems to be significantly less of a climate of regulation and surveillance. Merchandise in the store presents the contents of the museum, but in a manner that is accessible. One may not take the unique exhibit home with them, but there is the option of taking ownership of the mass-produced copy. As souvenirs, cultural objects are simplified and diluted for the purposes of easy and ready consumption by a trusting mass audience. What function the museum store serves appears all fine and good on the surface, yet with closer inspection, revelations much less benign begin to emerge.

An in-depth inventory of the Getty Bookstore revealed an undeniably robust selection of museum-related products, yet at the same time, a nonsensical assortment of goods impossible to link specifically to the Getty institution. Such items include the 2002 edition of the Zagat Dining Survey for Los Angeles and pairs of reading glasses that fold up to fit inside a pen that actually writes. This selection indicates a kind of removal of the store from the museum. There is a distance between the educational and cultural space and the commercial space, between observation and consumption, which cannot ever be fully bridged.

The act of purchase and the selection of a particular souvenir from the museum store by an individual, whether for oneself or as a gift, reveals the nature of the individual and their desire for cultural creativity, thoughtfulness, remembrance and validation. Like collecting, that moment and object of selection is a kind of confession, “just as clearly (and obviously) as taking a choice is making a disclosure…regarding objects that, as we gather them, paradoxically give us away” (Theroux 12). An individual’s specific choice reveals something of his identity in regard to souvenir selection. If the museum store souvenir is a reflection of the way a person contextualizes, remembers and makes sense of their experience in the museum, critical investigation of the chosen object reflects their understanding or unwillingness to understand and instead merely commemorate.

The level of investment, not in economic terms, but instead determined by the good selected, renders the consuming visitor’s attitude about the museum or specific exhibit transparent. There is a difference between the visitor who purchases a museum T-shirt and refrigerator magnets, a Venetian glass pendant and a 2002 Zagat Dining Survey and the visitor who purchases books on Cubism and museum theory and a leather journal. How individuals experience and interpret the lessons and information presented by the museum is as diverse as the museum store’s range of products. This habit of collection, while an important means for the communication of identity and culture, has its downside. “Collecting can frequently give way to mania” (Ibid. 6). The visitor begins to exhibit this sort of mania when they return to the museum store, and only the museum store, time and time again. The reasons for entering the museum space become confused and lost as the act becomes not only a commercial enterprise instead of an educational one, but also a means of satiating a sense of cultural emptiness. The act is a kind of dual legitimation and fetishization of culture.

Consuming visitors collect souvenirs as fetishes or icons of experience and souvenirs in the space of the museum store become doubly subversive objects because they represent culture as commercial products in the already overdetermining milieu of the museum. Souvenirs, so long as they continue to represent cultures as pre-packaged, tourist-ready material goods—‘thoughtful’ and ‘arty’ gifts or conversation pieces for the living room coffee table—will continue to subjugate those cultures. Museums are important as instruments of preservation; souvenirs are important as instruments of memory, yet both confuse, corrupt and complicate meaning through abbreviation, substitution and embellishment. Neither is free of bias and their combination culminating in the museum store results in self-perpetuating cycle of delusion.

All objects selected for display in the museum have biographies, yet those of souvenirs are predetermined (Ibid. 163). These souvenir biographies are exist only insofar as they can be related to objects in the museum.

The particular biography [the museum] constructs for these objects as justification for their inclusion in the collection or display results in an abstraction. The ensuing meanings are of necessity partial but, more importantly, they are an essential part of the particular claims for authority and legitimacy on which the museum’s whole status depends. It is after all through the object and the object’s membership of a collection, that the distinct character of the museum is achieved. (Ibid. 164)

Like objects, souvenirs “are reinscribed into a personal culture of memory and experience” (Ibid. 165). There are often souvenir objects in museum stores that have nothing to do with any exhibits or display at the given institution. They merely possess some kind of interest in their representation of a culture and potential for revenue.

In this, souvenirs and the museum store within and of themselves do retain some kind of value. They do provide capital for the museums, increase awareness of cultural features and the museum itself as an institution. Additionally, souvenirs can serve as a memory to remind one of a culture or an experience. These are merits undoubtedly, but it is important to fully explore the meanings constructed by the objects before taking them as pure and unquestionable truth or simply as entirely innocent goods.

The museum store seeks to showcase its contents as well as promote a successful commercial enterprise. These institutions of art, history and culture have no illusions about the importance of profit. With the museum store, each museum must construct its function as a form of advertising and support for featured exhibits. The store does not serve the sole purpose of subverting, subordinating and misrepresenting culture. Indeed, the space is a form of general promotion. The museum store, with its commercial objective, is something that contemporary visitors and shoppers can relate to and be comfortable with, yet at the same time, the store’s relation to the institution elevates the perceived status of the goods it offers. Objects in the museum store are pre-validated as cultured and tasteful unlike those found in the public shopping spaces of department stores and other retail outlets. A Van Gogh Sunflowers mouse pad may be a clear incarnation of kitsch and purchased at Walmart, the object continues to be. Yet the same item, purchased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art bookstore, theoretically hosting the traveling Van Gogh exhibit, retains a sort of value and status not possessed by the same object at the retail outlet. Souvenirs in the museum store seem to personify a quality that Dean MacCannell describes in his book, The Tourist, as a kind of ‘staged authenticity.’ By their position in the museum space, the souvenirs in the store, albeit commercial goods, possess a sense of validation because of their ties to an educational and cultural institution. As Dennis Judd and Susan Fainstein write in their book, The Tourist City, there is something about buying an object at its site of ‘production’ even if it is available elsewhere. This ‘myth of authenticity’ begins to be compromised with new mediums of distribution and technological innovation.

The space of the museum store has extended beyond that of a physical and tangible realm. With the Internet, the world’s most pervasive and gratuitous consumer marketplace; the museum store has found itself an electronic home in several incarnations. At the forefront is museumshop.com, ‘the first online museum retail collaborative.’ Over 75 museums proffer their goods on the site, over 3000 products in all. Purchasing from museumshop.com promises ‘the gift of culture.’ The organization of the site reveals much about the assumptions and prejudices concerning the classification, presentation and importance of ‘culture.’ At first glance, the layout appears to be pretty routine. Customers may browse the site by museum or product category but it is in the latter section that problems begin to emerge. Categories segment into ‘Posters and Mugs,’ ‘Gifts Under $50′ and ‘Asian,’ among other things. The taxonomy here raises several questions that I imagine the creators of museumshop.com would be loath to answer. By naming certain categories by some cultures or regions but not others, what is to be thought of those included and those excluded? What is the customer to insinuate about the importance of each? Why are certain products listed before others? How can the categories of ‘Asian’ or ‘African’ and ‘Gifts Under $50′ be placed in relation to each other? In addition to this general site, almost all of the museum web pages have links to their own private online stores. For many, with these online resources, it is no longer necessary to even visit the actual museum.


Returning to the physical reality of the museum store but not to the museum itself is the satellite shop. This entity, while physically detached from the institution, represents it by retailing products emblazoned with the museum logo as well as souvenirs representative of the museum’s collections. The MOCA store for example, or at least one branch of it, is located on Main Street in Santa Monica, while MOCA the museum is located in downtown Los Angeles. The Santa Monica store seems to exist independent of the institution it is representing and supporting; one might visit the store without any knowledge of the relationship, especially given the range of non-relevant items for sale in the store.

The space of the museum and the connotations of the institution orient and reduce the objects inside and subsequently, cultures contained and represented by it. Roger Silverstone describes this as; “[Museums] offer an ideologically inflected account of the world” (162). Further, the museum’s position is increasingly nebulous and compromised in terms of what and how it represents.

The museum is no longer, if it ever was, an institution which can be understood on its own terms as innocently engaged in the processes of the collection, conservation, classification and display of objects. On the contrary, it is one among many components in a complex array of culture and leisure industries isolated from political and economic pressures or from the explosion of images and meanings which are, arguably, transforming our relationships in contemporary society to time, space and reality. (Ibid. 161)

Like objects in the museum, souvenirs are positioned in a particular way in the museum store. Souvenirs speak a version of the realities of the objects and exhibits displayed in the space of the institution. The meaning of a souvenir is limited however, by its very nature. Souvenirs, because they are produced for purely commercial consumptive purposes, are robbed of any context or history.

The souvenir object in the museum store is far more transient than the display object in the museum both in terms of physical location and assigned meanings, as souvenirs perform different functions for different people and museums are the souvenir objects’ point of departure, not their home. Regardless of status as a commercial souvenir or preserved artifact,

An object is nothing unless it is part of a collection. A collection is nothing unless it can successfully lay claim to a logic of classification which removes it from the arbitrary or the occasional. In its work of collection, the museum provides both a model for, and an echo of the work of consumption in which we all engage, extracting from the world of use or commercial values objects which, in our appropriation of them, gain their meaning by their inclusion in our own symbolic universe. (Silverstone 165)

The practice of collection then, is a way of formulating meaning for the institution or the individual, depending on the context and scale. Souvenir purchase, as an act of collecting, works for the individual. Baudrillard asserts in The System of Objects that for children, collecting is a way of ordering and mastering the world (87). The continuous acquisition of souvenirs is the adult equivalent, the goods operating as badges of cultural legitimacy and knowledge.

The nature of collecting, when related to the topic of museums and souvenirs, presents an interesting dilemma. Museums house collections of objects; museum stores house collections of commodities inspired or derived from those objects, and visitors, in purchasing from the museum store, are collecting a version of the museum’s constructed and presented reality. By their presence in the museum space, the displayed objects are legitimized as being worthy of classification and maintenance. By their inclusion in the museum store, souvenir objects are pronounced worthy and representative of certain exhibits and collections as a whole. Removed from any named or recognizable origin, the museum store souvenir, like the modern collected work of art, is highly paradoxical.

Insofar as the modern collector takes objects out of their original context and invests them with an abstract, transcendental value, he can be described as a fetishist of the object. And yet, by ignoring the object’s original purpose and use, the art collector’s appropriation of a work of art because of its aesthetic and spiritual values strips it of any ‘commodity value’ it may have had. In other words, according to Benjamin, the collector replaces the commodity fetish with a cultural fetish. (Anemone 253)

What then, can be made of these objects created solely as souvenirs, stereotyped encapsulations of culture, tourist items bereft of meaning or value? Souvenirs must be looked at as fetishes of experience.

In their creation as commemorations of experience, souvenirs are set further apart from artifacts. Museum objects were not produced or intended for display in the museum. In fact, their arrival and eventual residence in the museum space is relatively serendipitous. While they may have been ‘produced’ in a way for presentation by the way they are selected and organized in conjunction with other objects, they have a history of their own.

Souvenir objects, in contrast, have no such uniqueness or proof of value evidenced by their origin and function or lack thereof. They are produced only to be bought; they are not purposely preserved objects. The poet, Martin Espada, describes this sense of non-worth in an interview. “[There is] in general no sense of history beyond ‘souvenir history,’ the kind of history that is commemorated every Fourth of July. A very superficial understanding of history” (Ratiner 1). Souvenirs derive their meaning from artificial constructions with no basis on actual context. Ceremony of presentation becomes more important than meaning. What is paramount is each souvenir’s attractiveness to the consuming visitor as a commodity, not its accuracy in cultural representation.