Something to remember


sou·ve·nir/ so͞ovəˈnir

  • a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place, or event.
  • take as a memento.


By Sofie Andersen

Today's #museumweek theme is all about #souvenirsMW; as in the things we take away from an experience, or as is often the case in museums, that we buy from the store or shop. We’ve been thinking about souvenirs of cultural experiences –the ‘treasures’ and also the less tangible souvenirs, as in the French meaning, of memory. Of course most of us connect with what we can actually hold in our hands. But what happens when you start to think about creating cultural memories, particularly using sound – sound souvenirs?

This is what museums have been doing - perhaps without realizing it - for decades, first with the audio tour and now with apps. Museums are fusing the physical experience with the memory triggers - ‘apps’ that they take home - if only for a short while – and hold in their hands, or link to other online experiences. The memories created during those moments of listening or exploring - either at the museum or  afterwards - are less tangible, complex to track and quantify, but significant parts of the cultural experience none the less.

This is a rich area to explore, as cultural tourists absorb their experiences into their daily lives, and how sound and virtual experiences are souvenirs in the same way objects, which as Nigel Morgan & Annette Pritchard have argued, act as transitions “ touchstones of meaning, which can evoke powerful memories of experience and mediate our sense of place, enveloping the past with the present”[1].

Ultimately we create our own connection, journeys with souvenirs. And back to the spirit of today we strong-armed our colleague, Blaire Moskowitz, known for her love of collecting the most shall we say ‘eclectic’ of souvenirs, into sharing some of her narratives of collecting and reflecting on souvenirs;

On my travels, I make a point of buying souvenirs of all kinds. I’ve bought one-of-a-kind handmade crafts such as a papier-mâché mask from Venice, a two foot long clay sculpture of a paintbrush from Florence, an oil lamp from Jerusalem, and a small patch of fiber art from London. Yet, the museum souvenirs hold a different appeal. Meant to charm masses of global travelers, and usually to advertise the items that are stored in their collections, the museum souvenirs I come across range from creatively unique to utterly bizarre.

At the British Museum I had a checklist of things to see – all the items that I’d seen in books. The Elgin Marbles, the Double-Headed Serpent, and of course, the Rosetta Stone.   I walked around each work, trying to memorize them from every angle before going on to the next. I was there for hours. My last stop was the gift shop and there I saw these ridiculous Rosetta Stone socks and I burst out laughing. They were the silliest thing… but at the same time, I just had to have them. I’m still waiting for the right occasion to wear them.

 Rosetta stone socks


Branded pencils are one of those standard items that are sold in every museum shop for only a few dollars; they’re an easy souvenir to buy and small enough to easily take with you. I have at least 30, but the best are the ones that have trinkets on the top end. My two favorites are the miniature Stonehenge (purchased just as the shop opened, as I had visited at sunrise) and the Duomo (where their shop is located unnervingly next to the crypt).

 pencil tops

In the middle of the Judean desert, my friends and I hiked all the way up Masada to see the ancient ruins located on the summit and to have a perfect view of the Dead Sea. Then we walked down the winding snake path, which at the bottom has a gift shop with all sorts of items relating to the special water found in the Dead Sea – from skin care products to salt for cooking. I bought a pack of salt because I had never seen salt flakes sold in a museum shop before.

Dead Sea Salt

The Solomon R. Guggenheim is such a distinctive spiral shape. I’ve walked by countless times, and seen exhibits there more times than I can count, so I’m not sure when exactly I picked up Guggenheim saltshakers. My family has a large collection of uniquely shaped saltshakers from all of our family vacations – including an astronaut from the Smithsonian Air and Space, cactuses from the Denver Museum of Art, and the Liberty Bell from Independence National Park in Philadelphia – but the Guggenheim ones are simple, yet so recognizable.

Museum Saltshakers 

Since souvenirs are more than just items, it’s remarkable how long we keep them. While other items can be given away, sold or donated, the memories and personal connections to souvenirs remain remarkably strong. My mother still has a plastic quill pen from Fraunces’ Tavern Museum (bought when she was 7 on a school field trip) and my father still has a wooden magnet from Valley Forge (bought when he was 12 as part of a Boy Scout trip); their enduring cultural memories are intertwined with these items.   I’m sure the items I’ve bought will be saved and transport me back to the places I’ve visited for years to come.



[1] Nigel Morgan & Annette Pritchard, “On Souvenirs and metonymy: Narratives of memory, metaphor and materiality” , Tourist Studies 2005, 5:29 DOI 10.1177/1468797695962714“,

- author