Our visit to Vulcan this weekend included a stop in the museum on the grounds. The museum is small, but includes some great information about Birmingham, the iron industry, world’s fairs and other early twentieth-century amusements, and the million billion things that have happened in Alabama since Vulcan was built. It also included a whole room chock full of Vulcan souvenirs. Cases of statuettes (seen above), a whole display of collectible spoons, oodles of postcards from throughout the years, and artworks that were inspired by the statue.
Souvenirs, like selfies, are not new. They had examples of statuettes from each phase of Vulcan’s life, including one that was created to be sold while they were still raising money to build the statue for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Before today’s practice of designing and manufacturing all kinds of tchotchkes and junk to sell in souvenir stands, people still collected items from places they visited. People were chipping chunks off of the fabled Plymouth Rock even before the USA celebrated its 50th birthday. So many people were ripping pieces off of George Washington’s Mount Vernon – even before the estate was open to the public! – that caretakers began manufacturing souvenirs, often made from trees and such from the estate. Humans want to have a physical reminder of places they’ve been, moments they’ve lived through, crises they’ve witnessed.
In the months following September 11th, vendors on New York City’s streets began selling bootleg souvenirs and cobbled-together photo books featuring images of the day of the attacks, the site of the World Trade Center, and the recovery effort. People bought them, earnestly hoping for something to remind them that they were there. They had walked those streets and witnessed the place where the historic events had taken place. When the National September 11th Memorial & Museum opened its Preview Center on Vesey Street, it included a gift shop, which was very popular. And the museum has a store now that it’s open, as well. I don’t think there’s a problem with that. I try to keep my cynicism in check, but the reality is that even if the Memorial shut down its store (which is also a revenue stream to sustain the museum), people would open their wallets for street vendors and others selling 9/11 souvenirs. I understand the concerns people have, a reaction to perceived vulgarity on a site where so many died. However, I believe that the desire to collect souvenirs is a response to a few core realities of our existence: that experience is ephemeral, that memory is aided by physical reminders, that our very existence on this planet is fleeting. So put a snow globe on your shelf when you get home. You were there. You believe yourself.
When Vulcan was installed at the Alabama state fairgrounds after the end of the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, his right arm, which extends skyward, was accidentally installed upside down and without his spear, which had been lost on the way from St. Louis. It remained that way until Vulcan was reinstalled in the park where he now sits, 30ish years later. Statues from this time period have his hand upside down, palm up. People want their mementos to reflect the reality they experienced, even when it’s wrong.