Many of our cultural heritage collections exist to preserve the significant past of a region or locality. But the determination of significance is always subjective. Decades ago, curators focused on connoisseurship in selecting artifacts for perpetual care. Aesthetics and the quality of craftsmanship were often the most sought-after attributes in acquisitions. Today, those of us responsible for collections are trained to value the stories that the objects (and their accompanying documentation) can tell. Oftentimes, souvenirs are not the most beautiful or well made artifacts, but many incorporate iconography unique to or important for the regions they represent. Moreover, although souvenirs are often created for a tourist market, their prevalence helps shape place identity for residents as well as visitors.
Souvenir objects, like this plate in the NC Museum of History’s collection, alert both residents and tourists to prominent sites to visit, important agricultural products, and symbolic flora and fauna. Overtime, these kinds of objects represent the changing iconography of a place. The dogwood and cardinal, for instance, were adopted as official state symbols in 1941 and 1943, respectively. Similarly, after the anti-smoking campaigns of the late 20th century, a pack of cigarettes (just above the “C” on the plate) would be unlikely to appear as an emblem of North Carolina. Consequently, the imagery not only dates the object, but also offers clues to changing perceptions of what is NC pride-worthy.
So, don’t discount every t-shirt and go-cup you come across for your collection. Consider incorporating souvenir collecting into a strategic plan for your collection. You’ll want to be selective and take quality and of course, materials in account. (Avoid things made from rubber, such as some magnets, since they will release harmful pollutants as they degrade.) Most of all, ask questions about how the object is representing your institution’s locality and how it relates to place identity in your area. If the answers are interesting, then the souvenir may be worthy of your institution’s care for perpetuity.