The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is full of fascinating objects related to American History. Many more relics are owned by the museum but have never been displayed. Souvenir Nation presents 50 of the most unusual and interesting objects, with beautiful photographs and details of what events they are tied to and how the Smithsonian came to own them.
The first 43 pages of the book are a brief history of the Smithsonian and its various curators, with particular regard towards their feelings concerning souvenirs and their importance to history, from the avid advocate to those who felt they were insignificant and not worth collecting or displaying. These pages are of interest mainly for researchers and are of uneven interest to the casual reader.
However, once the book begins in earnest with the photos and stories of the objects that people collected for their personal significance to them and which were later acquired by the museum, it becomes very interesting.
The objects documented here not only cover American history, from pre-Revolutionary days to the 2000 election, but include fascinating relics from world history as well. They are as personal as locks of hair from Presidents and other famous persons and as impersonal as a hunk of wood or stone from some significant place. Some are found items which were not made to be souvenirs and some were deliberately made and marketed. There is a chunk of wood from Plymouth Rock, a stone from Pompeii, a bit of the Berlin Wall. Some are predictable but pretty, like a bit of China, and some are bizarre, like boxed pieces of Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday cake!
What all these relics have in common is that someone cared about them and felt that they helped them to connect with history. Seeing these ordinary objects helps us do the same. It reminds us that history took place, not in some fantasy location, but right here on Earth in buildings and locations where there was stone and wood, and that Presidents had hair, just like the rest of us. It humanizes history, and makes the past feel closer and more accessible to us, which is one of the purposes of museum displays, after all.
Souvenir Nation is a fascinating look at bits of American history and an engrossing peek at the obsession we as a people have to commemorate important events, places and things with something we can physically touch. It is recommended to anyone interested in history as well as in a better understanding of American culture and human nature.