When we envision souvenirs, we usually think of trinkets that commemorate an event, a person or a place. Recently, I visited an exhibit on souvenirs at the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, D.C., that changed my concept of them.
Before museums existed, souvenir hunters collected items in order not to lose sight of the past. As I viewed one souvenir after another, I experienced a wonderment of the past. I saw a bronze statue of Joan of Arc, with a base made from stones taken from the dungeon where she was held before being burned at the stake. While looking at one of the stones, I wondered: Was Joan of Arc having a vision of God before dying? Was she deep in prayer or was she fearful and torn? What went on during her last moments?
Another souvenir that piqued my wonderment was a panel from the stagecoach of President George Washington. It depicted spring. I wondered what it was like in those days as Washington rode back and forth from Mount Vernon to the capital. Did he stop along the way to talk to neighbors? Did he drink in the beautiful scenery along the Potomac River? What was the pace of life in those days?
I also saw a souvenir napkin given to William Bayard, a wealthy American visitor, who received it from Napoleon Bonaparte on the day Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba, off the Italian coast. Bayard had joined in on a celebration marking Napoleon’s return to France. I had to wonder how much intrigue was in the air at that moment. What thoughts went through the mind of Napoleon in his pursuit of a comeback?
Among the items, there’s also a souvenir used during a particularly controversial moment in our time: a magnifying glass used to decide whether votes were or were not cast for candidates George W. Bush or Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election in the United States.
I remember the days after the election and the mass confusion of the result. The Supreme Court was basically tasked with deciding the winner. I was walking by the Supreme Court of the United States one day when I heard a policeman say, “The court should stay out of the business of deciding the outcome.”
More than a decade later after the court decided the outcome, I was looking at the magnifying glass. I wondered what would have happened if the Supreme Court had not stepped in.
After looking at the exhibit and the reflection that came with it, I learned to look at souvenirs as more than trinkets and as thought-provoking objects.