The power of souvenirs


(Edmonton) Everybody brings home vacation souvenirs—some classy, some trashy—to gather dust as treasured trinkets. For Karly Coleman, it was a red and gold mask she bought as an enamoured 16-year-old, in love at the time with the magic of Venice.

“It was a lovely, evocative element of the trip to bring back—and other than it was crushable, so I spent the rest of the trip trying not to break it, it still reminds me of the times I had that year,” she recalls now with a grin.

Coleman, an open studies student in the University of Alberta’s Department of Human Ecology, is one of 23 pupils who have gathered together their most beloved personal souvenirs for a springtime exhibit that primes people to think about what kind of goodies they buy to take home, and why.

Just in time for the coming vacation season, Greetings From…Exchanging Cultural Ideals Through Tourism celebrates and explores the trinkets we may pay too much for and jam into overstuffed suitcases to haul hundreds of miles, so they can sit on a shelf or wall, or be given away. 

“We want this exhibit to incite curiosity about the souvenirs people buy—why they are bringing a certain item home,” Coleman said. “We are curious about how tourism works.”

As with other purchases, there is a psychology behind travel trinkets, said Megan Strickfaden, assistant professor of material culture and design studies, who is leading the class project.

“People collect souvenirs for various reasons; they act as memory devices or to show off adventures taken. This exhibit will explore how well objects represent specific places, and whether this is important to the object’s inherent value. We also wanted to explore the idea of authenticity of souvenirs from other places—are they more real if they are handcrafted rather than mass-produced?”

Take the example of lotus shoes, used to bind the feet of Chinese noblewomen as a sign of beauty. The exhibit features a real 19th-century pair of the tiny shoes from the U of A’s collection, alongside a pair made for the tourist market. The real shoes are seven inches long; the fake ones, just three inches long.

Greetings From also tweaks viewers to think about the ideal of a dream destination versus the reality, Coleman said.

“For instance, when you think of Paris, you think of art galleries and beautiful squares and restaurants. You get there and it’s crowded, there’s street crime, so the ideal of your expectations of Paris does not match the real Paris.”

The exhibit features about 40 artifacts from the students and from the U of A’s clothing and textiles collection, representing all parts of the globe including Australia, Africa, Europe, North America and Asia. The eclectic assortment of mementoes includes a nesting doll brought from Ukraine, a Dutch cookbook, a Polish walking stick, a wooden flute from the Czech Republic and a colourful assortment of the ultimate souvenir: T-shirts.

By asking travellers to think more deeply about their acquisitions, “it brings a bit of depth to the adventure of travelling,” Coleman said. “There’s a story behind every object. Everybody’s journey has got a pearl in it.”

See the exhibit

Greetings From…Exchanging Cultural Ideals Through Tourism opens April 5 and runs through May 21 in the main floor lobby of the U of A Human Ecology Building. The exhibit is free of charge and open to the public Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.