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A souvenir of Shackleton
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Laurel Blossom
Tchotchke schlock


Souvenirs of the Shackleton Exhibition
American Museum of Natural History, New York
April 10 - October 11, 1999

things 10
summer 1999
My husband was supposed to meet me. He was late. We don't have cell phones. By the time we found each other, the museum was set to close in half an hour. It was a small exhibition, but we rushed through it; we wanted to make sure we saved enough time for the gift shop. 

Gift counter, as it turned out, directly across from the exhibition entrance. If we had met up sooner, we would probably have gone there first; we like to look over the tchotchkes, the trinkets, before we see the sight. That way we know what to look for 'inside.' But our rule is never to buy anything until after we come back out; we feel it wouldn't be right. The only exception we ever made was in Russia, where you have to buy stuff when you see it, no matter where you see it, because if you wait until you get to the place it goes with, the thing you wanted to buy won't be there

I was concentrating on the postcard reproductions of Frank Hurley's photographs of the ice of the Antarctic when I heard my husband ask me, 'Would you like this?' When I turned around, he was holding in his hand a four-inch snow globe with a painted replica of Ernest Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, inside, caught in the remorseless pack ice of the Weddell Sea, hunched to starboard. I was thrilled. We collect snow globes: we have one of the Eiffel Tower and one of the Statue of Liberty, my husband gave me a tiny one with a penguin in it for Christmas before I left for Antarctica, we have one you can slip a photograph into, we have a musical one of a bride and groom that plays 'We've Only Just Begun' when you wind it up, that sentimental Carpenters song from the 1970s.

Together we have a very wide schlock streak. 

Schlock means cheap goods, tacky and tasteless. Not all souvenirs are cheap; very little in the gift shop at the Shackleton exhibition, for instance, cost under $30. But I venture to say that all souvenirs are sentimental, they are meant to be sentimental, and therefore, to the 20th-century mind, they are automatically tacky and tasteless. Souvenirs tie us to our memories and to certain uncomfortable deeper feelings. Both sentimentality and sentiment have had bad press since the First World War; they themselves are regarded as schlock. The modernists taught us to prefer ironic distance. When we buy souvenirs, my husband and I, we put quotes around them, as if to say we don't really mean this. We're loath to admit our silly attachment to places we've been and things we've done, embarrassed by our desire to bring with us into the future some tangible reminder of our past, some material proof of our having been alive in a particular place at a particular time with particular people around us. We are afraid to care. 

But we do care, nevertheless. Souvenirs allow us to express that caring without giving ourselves away too much, without revealing more than we want to reveal about the depth of our desire to remember and to be remembered. The word souvenir, of course, means memory and comes, originally, from the Latin verb subvenire, meaning to come into the mind. 

I shook up the snow globe holding the Endurance. She was instantly engulfed in a polar storm of white swirling snowflakes. It was magical, like a movie, the way a whole world could be entered - escaped into - with a flick of the wrist. I was back at the exhibition within the week. 

This time, I took my time. I stood with Shackleton and his men watching the Endurance crumble in the grip of the Antarctic ice; I waited with them on the shrinking ice floes; I rode in the rescue boats to Elephant Island; with Shackleton I braved the Scotia Sea in the little whaler, James Caird, as he made the nearly impossible voyage to South Georgia for help; I walked across the unforgiving glaciers; I wept at his grave. 

I catalogued the gift-shop offerings. In addition to postcards of Hurley's photographs of the Endurance, there was, among other things, an 18 x 24-inch framed poster of the Endurance in profile under full sail in the Weddell Sea ice. There was a T-shirt in white or tan, showing on its front a map of the expedition's route and on the back the Endurance's deck plan. There were videos; there were books. One of the inevitable mugs showed on one side the Endurance photographed at night and on the other a portrait of Shackleton. The other mug was plain white on the outside, but on the blue-ice bottom sat a ceramic Adélie penguin about the size of a human thumb. Miniature cargo boxes held key rings adorned with telescopes, compasses, and ship's wheels. A glass penguin paperweight. A ceramic emperor penguin collectible figurine. A ship-in-a-bottle kit. Of boxes there was one in cherry with a photo of the Endurance on its lid, another in oak (a keepsake for keepsakes) with a photo of a pair of puppies born during the expedition. 

I was disappointed that no one had thought of a James Caird replica Christmas ornament. 

Sometimes I wonder if souvenirs haven't taken the place of experience, like photographs that replace the living faces of the ones we love. We are so anxious to possess; experience is so fleeting. We want something we can hang on to. Souvenirs give us the illusion of permanence, the hope that we will never lose our memories, never be lost. 

I bought the crystal paperweight with the compass etched on the underside, in the middle of which is the Shackleton quote: 'Never for me the lowered banner, never the last endeavour.' I bought the ceramic knock-off of a Limoges box with a family of Adélie penguins on top for my friends, Angela and Val. I bought three macaroni penguin plush beanbag dolls. I bought a snow globe for Pamela, my Antarctic cabin-mate. 

The commercial souvenirs we buy are not unique; they are manufactured by the thousand. They are like poems we cannot write, paintings we dare not paint, sculptures we don't know how to sculpt: they stand in for our inarticulate feelings. Worse, they conventionalise our response. In this culture, we think we can buy feelings. Icons, in America, like Mickey Mouse and Barbie arouse instant and powerful feelings of mass nostalgia. Greeting card manufacturers make fortunes fabricating holidays and producing 'sentiments.' 

In fact, however, commercial souvenirs are emotionally blank. They may represent each buyer's private feelings, but their machine-made universality and their mass appeal impedes their ability actually to communicate from one person to another. For a price, we may bestow on them our dreams, but they have no stories of their own. They have no voice. 

My Endurance snow globe, for instance, will always remind me of Ernest Shackleton, of my trip to Antarctica, of Antarctica itself, of the Shackleton exhibition, of my husband's sweet gesture of apology for being late. When I die, he will cherish it, I hope, for the mmemory it holds of me, but some of its meaning, being mine, will already have been lost. When my husband dies, my daughter may continue to keep it; but the chances are she will hold a garage sale. 

Maybe my globe will travel on some residential spacecraft with the little boy who buys it from her or the little boy who buys it from him. The meaning it held for me long ago will have been forgotten. The meaning it holds for its new owners will one day be forgotten too. 

Maybe the globe itself will be lost. Maybe it won't. Maybe someday it will be the only one left. Eventually it may show up in a plastic case in some 25th-century museum, evidence of a remote and foreign culture, our dying late-capitalist obsession with consumption. It will carry our longings for a heroic past and for unexplored future continents to 'conquer', as we still say. It will witness our fear for our own extinction, our need for memory and hope. It will be our little millennial Endurance flung into a stormy, unimaginable sea. 



things 10, summer 1999

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