A Little History of Souvenirs

February 18, 2016

When I started working on my graduation project in 2014, I asked 20 people I did not know their definition of a souvenir. Of course, not everyone had the same one. It can be intangible, like a “mental memory of good things past with my folks” said Neil (58 years old). For some, like Robin (20), it’s “more of an artefact than a mental memory”, like a small & inexpensive object from a gift shop.

For Ben (26) souvenirs are the personal and collective memories of previous experiences: “ […] it’s what remains after an event one or many has been part of: a photo, a drawing, a brand, forgotten stuff, recorded sounds…” he said. A girl in her thirties concluded: “it’s when you freeze a moment in time.”

In fact, souvenirs can either be a memory or an object that serves as a reminder of a memory.

The process of creating a souvenir

Souvenirs are created by memory. Humans sensors (sight, taste, smell, touch and hearing) react to stimulus and transform the information into a signal that is read, adapted and stored in our memory.

Souvenirs are intimately linked to our knowledge and life experiences. They are surrounded by context, such as date, place and emotional state. They are stored and recalled from memory when triggered. Artefacts with an emotional value will act as memory triggers. Like the snowball that is on your shelf: it could seem worthless but it isn’t. Because it reminds you of a great instant. These artefacts can have many forms: an object, a picture, a video, a song, a drawing, a scrapbook…

Since Antiquity and the Lascaux caves (one of the oldest testimony of events “recording”), men have captured their life, therefore creating human shaped triggers. Drawing and writing were the first significant mediums used to store and recall events. Individuals had to shape the souvenir, through hand and mind, therefore creating a personal interpretation of an event.

« La salle des Taureaux, Le panneau de l’Ours ». Source: http://lascaux.culture.fr

Progress and souvenirs

Fast forward to the invention of dark rooms and later on of the camera: progress enabled to capture sort of “high-fidelity souvenirs”, where the representation do not depend on personal interpretation anymore. It is more accurate and realistic, although it can be subject to technological issues and choices — such as being overexposed for example.Today, the devices to capture this types of souvenirs are commonly used: cameras, microphones, smartphones…

Technology has made the capture of souvenirs really easy. Smartphone now allows to both capture and share / broadcast souvenirs. All previous limits are quickly disappearing, and tools are getting better every day. Manufacturer introduced front camera on their smartphones to facilitate video calls. But in the end, it is probably more widely used for selfies, one of souvenirs latest trend!

In terms of capture, another example is Narrative (initially called Memoto) — it’s a small connected wearable, that enables lifelogging. Every 30 seconds, a picture is captured, send through the internet for storage, and tagged with localization information gathered through a GPS sensor.

“Combining Functionality & Aesthetics”. Source Narrative : http://getnarrative.com

This lifelogging trend derived from quantified self. By capturing every instant, one can be sure to never miss an important moment.

But not only do technology impacts the way we capture souvenirs, it also enables restitution of souvenirs in new and creative ways. Take Touchable Memories, a project from Singapore based Lola. Using 3D printing, 2D pictures are turned into sculptures, adding a sense (touch) to the souvenir experience. It also enables the blind to experience “touching a souvenir” (fig.5).

“Yassine”. Source Pirate 3D, Touchable Memories: http://pirate3d.com/touchablememories

3D capture can also be used to reproduce collective memories, like historical buildings. For instance with the intention of preserving the old Palmyre Arch, which was destroyed in 2015 by ISIS. The arch was preserved before its destruction, and will be re-built using a giant 3d printer. In 2012, a hologram of the rapper Tupac was broadcasted live on stage at Coachella. Audience was able to experience a close to live concert experience.

At the individual scale, Digiteyezer enables anyone to build a miniature version of themselves using 3D Face capture.

There are many more examples….Technology has already changed significantly the way we capture souvenirs, by improving the way we collect souvenirs and by reducing all kinds of limitations (time, space, sharing…). The Brain-to-text project plans to actually be able to record thoughts. So we can imagine that wearables will be able to detect emotions and while capturing the experience. In a very close future, 360° videos and VR headsets will be within everyone’s reach, enabling to create even more immersive souvenirs.

All this points to a future where the nature of what we call a souvenir is going to change dramatically. As we get closer to a world where we will be able to capture complete memories (all senses & emotions) and to recreate sort of “real life experience”, we now have to consider a new range of questions about usage and impact of souvenirs.

Anna Hervé

Lead designer @getkumbu. UX and graphic design mostly but curious in everything and explorer all the time. TV shows, music, video games, rabbits and pastry.

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