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To Buy or not to Buy - Consuming Heritage

Prepared by Magda Zawadzka (TTI Radom)

To buy or not to buy has almost become a philosophical dilemma. How would you respond when faced with heritage reduced to a commodity for sale? (Click on a picture to see it full size)

To Buy or not to Buy? - some thoughts on the heritage trade?

Before you read

  • What is the most treasured possession you brought from your journeys?
  • What made you buy it?
  • Where do you keep your souvenirs?

NOTE: (Drive the mouse over a purple bullet to see a comment)

I went to Crete once. I enjoyed the company, the sun and food and the roads which took me somewhere I had never travelled before. But apart from these obvious blessings granted to a diligent tourist I discovered one more thing – a new understanding of mythologya group of myths that belong to a particular people or culture and tell about their ancestors, heroes, gods and other supernatural beings, and history – somehow the stories I remembered from the cool, white pages came to life under the Greek sun, permeated with the smell of the hot air and warm, smooth stones of the ruined ancient towns topping gentle hills from which you could see miles and miles of olive groves, vineyards and dark, intense dots of cypress trees. I came back with lots of memories and a small Greek vase. It is brownish-grey, feels a bit rough under your fingers and has a few simple floral motifs around it. Whenever I look at it now it brings back the pictures I saw, the smells and the colours of the island. As an object it seems to contain the essence of my understanding of Crete, an imaginative shortcut to a rich and complex culture.

In my naiveté I thought that every single place of interest would offer something unique, an object like my Greek vase, which would remind me of the genius lociLatin for ‘spirit of the place’, characteristic atmosphere of the place, of the people who lived and still live there, of something they left behind and that would feed the mind and delight the spirit.

So, ever since I came back from Crete I set off on every single journey with my mind and spirit ready and almost every single time my powers of endurance are tested beyond limits. All the places I go to offer so-called gifts and souvenirs which, at present, I am tempted to refer to as the ‘paraphernaliaassorted objects or items of equipment, often things that seem amusing, strange, or irritating of fear’. They seem to have nothing to do with the region and hardly ever bring to mind the local craftsactivities such as weaving, pottery, or wood carving, involving the skilful making of decorative or practical objects by hand and traditions.

On such occasions I imagine myself as an outsider, an alien trying to reassemble the fragments and visual stimuli coming from souvenir stalls and gift shops which dot the country. What can I buy? A typical ‘menu’ offers heritagea country's or area's history and historical buildings and sites that are considered to be of interest and value to present generations, e.g. the town's heritage trail trade’ consumers the following items, usually under a heading like Polish Fair (Jarmark Polski) or The Friends of X (Towarzystwo Przyjació³ X - insert the name of any town):

  • inflatable skeletons in black and white
  • clay piglets
  • dolls with big bosoms
  • mugs with pictures of London double-deckers
  • bras
  • sets of plastic pots
  • oil paintings of a flying horse (a.k.aalso known as Pegasus) against a fiery sunset
  • Indian jewellery

The list is far from complete but the ‘consumption’ of the items found on it will certainly lead to a serious stomach upset, not to mention the effect upon the mind and spirit, both unreasonably set on trying to discover the uniqueness of the place and talents of the local people.

I am aware of the fact that my view (or tragic vision) is biasedunfair or partial because of a preference for or dislike of something; I know some people like inflatable skeletons and God forbid I should deprive them of a chance to buy them. But why are they sold under a common label as the quintessencethe purest or most perfect example of something of Polishness, thus creating in every reasonable person an impression that the choice of souvenirs and so called heritage we offer must have been secretly manipulated by an out-patient from an institution for seriously disturbed individuals?

Now that you have read the article think about the points below:

  • Do you agree with the author’s opinion that the souvenirs offered to tourist have nothing to do with real heritage? Do you also feel so strongly about the issue?
  • The production of souvenirs should be licensed to provide tourists with gifts reflecting the heritage of the region. Do you agree? Why/ Why not?
  • What other items, which can often be found in souvenir shops, would you add to the list from the article?
  • Why do you think such ‘souvenirs’ such as those mentioned in the article are labelled as typically Polish?
  • What, in your opinion, should be offered by heritage trade to show the uniqueness of the place/region/country?

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