I recently joined Twitter and have been following the Smithsonian’s various twitter accounts; they post fun facts, museum news, and parts of their object collection. One collection in particular engaged me- the historical souvenirs. Now they were not the type of historical souvenirs seen in museum stores or in Marling’s George Washington Slept Here, but taken souvenirs.[1] Pieces of landmarks and historical buildings, like a piece of the Bastille. My adviser just released a trade-press book on Ferry Farm,Where the Cherry Tree Grew,and he mentions visitors to the site taking parts of the tree believed for a time to be the tree young George Washington barked.[2]  I remembered going with my father to Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Chicago and doing rubbings. And as a child my 4th grade teacher brought the whole class little rocks back from Ireland.  This got me thinking about my own work and readings looking at what communities’ ownership of select parts of the past do, how they function for them.  Books like Rosezwieg and Thelen’s Presents of the Past and Glassbergs’ Sense of History and American Historical Pageantry- all which deal with American’s interaction and desire to connect themselves with history.[3] Taking souvenirs from sites is defiantly apart of this, and it challenges ,in a way, Steve Conn’s Do Museum’s Still Need Objects.[4] It challenges the idea that objects are no longer desired or needed, but it also speaks to the idea that individual people are imbued with a self-righteous understanding of themselves as collectors of their own museums- which certainly speaks to museum’s loss of prestige Conn explores in  Museums in American Intellectual Life.[5]

            Another thing it made me think of was Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried– the way he describes the things the soldiers carried with them, symbolically and physically, and the importance and weight that the object held personally for them.[6] Though I have not read this book in many years, I feel a like a second look would reveal some interesting thoughts or discussion points on object study and personal relationships with the past, personal and larger.

            Once while driving around my old home town with an old friend, I realized I had never touched the stop sign that I passed by each time I left my parent’s house, and walked past each day to and from high school. I was taken aback that I had never touched, this recognizable symbol, this place marker I had interacted with for years. After our little adventure I did go back and touch that sign-if you are interested it felt like a metal sign, not a big surprise. This very well could be a quirk of mine, but I like to think that there is something fundamentally important about touching, and in a related way owning (being able to touch at will) recognizable, or meaningful objects. Are we not tactile creatures? There is an important part of many (probably not all people) that needs to touch things, to examine them for authenticity. This leads me to think back to Jay Cook’s The Arts of Deception, which looks at the Barnum Museums in New York and American’s desire to examine and understand what was real and what was fake.[7] Taking pieces of objects from historical places proves its authenticity and provides evidence of the owner/finders relation to the site.

            Next thought, how does taking from a historical site or marker (grave stone ect.) effect or counter act the desire to keep things historically “accurate”? There is certainly a clear distinction between a selfish act and preservation for the greater good.  How closely related is the want to preserve things and the loud objection to taking? Did preservation get popular after people started making a fuss over taking souvenirs?

I don’t really have a conclusion for this, as if I ever do, but I’ve got some thoughts swimming around.

Here is a photo the Smithsonian posted on Twitter- Its a bit of Plymouth Rock, a rather large bit.


[1]  Karal Ann Marling, George Washington Slept Here: Colonial Revivals and American Culture, 1876-1986 ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988)

[2] Phil Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home (New York: St. Martin’s Press,2013)

[3] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry (London and Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990),. David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life , 2001

[4] Steve Conn, Do Museums Still Need Objects(University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2010)

[5] Steven Conn. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

[6] Tim O’Brian, The Things They Carried (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990)

[7] Jay Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2001)


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