This article originally appeared in the ‘Souvenir’ issue of Museum.
The act of gathering souvenirs has been intrinsic to the human experience since we first began to stray from our lands. From early pilgrims amassing the dirt of the holy sites they visited, to the collection of construction materials and rough pieces of woodwork from foreign cities, there has always been an innate desire to mark the course of our journeys with objects hoarded along the way.
Of course, such natural modes of gathering have not always been innocent—the history of souvenir collection is intertwined with acts of violence and plunder, of colonisation and rapacious modes of territorial expansion. Culturally important indigenous objects and totems displayed in the British Museum—an Egyptian limestone amulet seal, for instance, or a message stick ‘found’ in the Northern Territory—mark the path of empire in the same way a piece of cheap metal merchandise marks the course of an individual traveller.
The advent of mass tourism, which evolved in an arc alongside the explosive growth of global capitalism in the 20th century, changed the dominant mode of souvenir collection. Like other consumer commodities, souvenirs became objects of industrial-scale production and distribution. In doing so, they were robbed of a fundamental psychic purpose: marking a journey in a unique and provable way. If you picked up a piece of dislodged white marble from the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza during a jaunt in the 19th century, you could display it proudly on your mantel—evidence of a kind of privileged globe-trotting. Display a hollow stainless steel relief of the Arc de Triomphe in 2018, and you prove nothing—it was probably manufactured in China, and you could have obtained it anywhere.
And yet there is still evidently some inherent value to souvenirs, something valuable to be gleaned by observing the way they interact with our conceptions of the world and ourselves. Globalisation and the elevation of transport logistics to a precise art mean we can obtain any souvenir, piece of merchandise or relic within days—if not hours—with the only limitation being financial means. Our world is one of geographic, political and cultural divisions, which our minds must arrange into a coherent symbolic order. Whether or not this is merely a symptom of capitalist realism and how market logic orders our thoughts, it is nonetheless true.
This, however, is obvious. What is less obvious is how souvenirs interact with our actual manufactured human environment. As landmarks and sites of cultural interest are boiled down to their essential elements through tourist ephemera—the Colosseum, shrunken to resemble a drinking vessel, a teddy bear outfitted as the Queen’s Guard—the objects themselves impose their will back onto the real. This process can be understood, like many systems, through the examples at the fringes—as sort of ‘zombie souvenirs.’ Like the undead, they shamble through a kind of half-life beyond the death of their material selves, sustained by an unnatural force: capitalism.
The red phone boxes of London, as early and prominent examples of telecommunications infrastructure, cemented themselves in global public consciousness soon after the K2 model was deployed in 1924. They represented not just a young foray into a brave new world of instant, accessible communication, but a concerted effort to establish a coherent design aesthetic across a distributed network of things.
The now-iconic red design—immortalised in everything from stamps to cast-iron replicas to cheap plastic keyrings—beat out the original silver-green design imagined by its creator Giles Gilbert Scott. Throughout the years, the phone boxes created a sense of visual unity and flow across London, striking a parallel with the red post boxes and red double decker buses.
The symbolic replication of phone boxes across a variety of media—and their interminable place in the encroaching order of pop art and youth counterculture—made them into not only functional and necessary parts of the city, but useful semiotic shorthand for how London liked to conceive of itself throughout the 1960s and beyond: hip, bright, wearing ‘the historical’ as a veneer. Gilbert Scott’s principles, rooted as much in Gothic architecture as modern urban design, helped create an object which existed in the vanishingly narrow gap between history and future; much like London itself.
One in particular occupies a special space in the shared tourist imagination: the phone box in Parliament Square. Its location seems to have been selected by some unnamed patron saint of photography—even the most amateur happy snapper can easily capture the full height of Big Ben, as well as the likely window dressing of a handful of stationary red buses. Thousands of near-identical photos of the phone box at Parliament Square fill Instagram. Same framing, different people.
"Anyone can take it. And maybe everyone has taken it—or a similar version, be it in London, Paris, New York, et cetera,” Paul Bevan, lecturer at London College of Fashion, told Londonist. “Most people can relate to an image like this, whether they know the person or not. There’s a kind of protocol or convention that is quite simple and unchallenging.”
Like many tourist destinations, ancient or contemporary, London’s phone boxes were built with functionality in mind. But as London left the 20th century, that function began to wither away. Mobile phones rapidly edged out the need for readily-accessible public telephones, leaving little actual need for the booths. The psychogeographic mapping of the city as a series of tourist loci was necessarily fractured by this. One might ask the question: how long should a society retain a structure for when its actual purpose is void? The answer, it turns out, is indefinitely.
UK legislation introduced in the 1980s predicted that the technology behind the red telephone box would inevitably be rendered useless by the forward march of progress, and outlined a system by which local councils could preserve them—as pseudo heritage pieces—by adopting them for other purposes. Curiously—and unlike in many other jurisdictions internationally—the regulation prohibits the phone boxes from being used for any other kind of electronic communications. In Australia and the US, decommissioned public telephones are often used as wi-fi hotspots. In the UK, this is not permitted, leading to a number of unconventional use cases for the red boxes: twee public libraries, stalls peddling cakes and chutney in jars, beachside shower facilities, and so on.
Despite the fact the phone boxes have existed for under a century, their position as tourist objects—and, by extension, symbols of national pride and self-identification, have outstripped their original purpose. They are zombie objects sustained by the industries that have emerged around them, from Instagram posts to gimmicky replicas. One might ask the question: at what point can the talismanic power of souvenir-object no longer sustain the continued existence of the object itself? When will the red phone box no longer conjure up ‘London’ in the mind of a traveller?
When the Twin Towers fell, they left three wounds.
One in the earth, monumentally scarred, a localised apocalypse of twisted metal, shattered concrete and vast columns of ash. One in the human life in New York, instantly bereft of three thousand lives. And one—infinitely less consequential in a human sense, but more immediate in a world-historical one—in the skyline of the city.
When the World Trade Center was first proposed, it faced resistance. It had been conceived as a means of rehabilitating declining Lower Manhattan precincts, which had become a symbol of urban decay even as the city centred itself in the increasingly empowered global financial order. Designer Minoru Yamasaki consciously envisioned the two thick glass blades thrust into the heavens as a self-aware icon of gothic modernism, and a delineation of New York as it imagined itself: muscular, forward-thinking, not beholden to the useless cruft of history.
Architecture critics slammed the towers, which they saw not as a towering modernist Colossus but two middle fingers thrust sky-high at tradition and the way things ought to be. They suggested an explicit incursion of corporate fixations into a city which dreamt of itself, often inaccurately, as one for the common man and his swelling potential.
“What is more dramatic, even romantic, than the tumbled towers of lower Manhattan, rising suddenly to the clouds like a magic castle girded by water?” wrote urbanist Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “What vandalism it would represent to dilute this magnificent city presence with the humdrum and the regimented.”
Critic Lewis Mumford, who dismissed the World Trade Center as the architectural equivalent two gigantic filing cabinets—both in form and function—wrote in 1970 that it would stand as an example of “the purposeless gigantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.”
As a functional office space, the Twin Towers didn’t fulfil their purpose for some time, with a million square feet of space remaining vacant for a decade after they opened. But as an intrusion into the collective mind of the city, the success was immediately apparent. They altered the skyline’s visual balance: dragging the focus back to the New York Harbour, acting as a vast symbolic gateway. But unlike the Statue of Liberty—a beacon for the dispossessed masses of Europe—the World Trade Center was a gateway to commerce, a door through which one could see the dark future of the city as a sandbox for the nouveau riche.
The manufactured signifiers reflected the new reality. The New York skyline was always suitable fodder for a vast souvenir industry. Every visualisation of the famous horizon—from brass reliefs to t-shirts, posters and shot glasses—always featured the familiar symbol: two rectangles raised triumphant beside the harbour.
In a sense, the critics were right. The precinct was built with this kind of crass commercialism as a feature. It was meant to be an icon not in the sense of the Empire State Building, which is a declaration of political intent as much as it is a building, but as a marketable object, a shiny billboard declaring the city was open and under new management. It expressed a vision of a city which could be bought and sold. It was the nexus of a new world order where everything imaginable was a commodity—from the tallest tower to its stainless steel keychain replica.
When the towers collapsed, so too fell the souvenir system built around them. The large photographs to hang on an office wall, the kitschy plates—all were rendered meaningless in an instant. Even the skyline in photographs took on a different meaning, and the shape and form of the city shifted. Photos of a pre-9/11 New York now look markedly different and unreal—objects of a strange and alien history.
But the throughline of souvenir culture remains, nearly two-decades after the towers fell. If you visit the official September 11 memorial website, the kitsch still very much exists—it’s just taken a different form. Now you can buy t-shirts with the Twin Towers on them surrounded by the logos of New York’s emergency services, or a crystalline keychain with the word SURVIVOR emblazoned upon it. Even the shredded remains of the building structure has been commoditised—first in the memorial museum itself, then as purchasable images.
The World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001, but its ghost still haunts our imagination of New York. It does so through the objects we use to imagine the city, and by extension ourselves—who are not from there—as travellers.
Souvenirs are no longer merely mementos of where humans have been. They order our thoughts about the world and our place in it; they create symbolic systems and flows beyond the original objects they signify. We venerate the commodity more than the objects themselves. And even when the objects die, they continue through their talismans—zombie souvenirs shambling forever onwards.