Exit to Your Right, Through the Gift Shop

Do you ever succumb to impulse buys? That completely random thing you really don’t need, but just have to have? I rarely do. I collect postcards because they are small, cheap, and easy to store. They are entirely the opposite of impulsive. But at Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, I was overcome by an object I needed – a pendulum clock in the shape of Elvis with his legs swinging from side-to-side. I had no idea why I needed it, but I did. Of course, being the carefully calculated collector I am, I told myself no. But even now, weeks later I have caught myself staring up at my kitchen wall thinking, “You know what would look great in that spot, Beck? An Elvis clock.”

Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, MS

Gift Shop at Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, MS. Courtesy of Elvis Presley Birthplace

While this Elvis clock has joined the regiment of missed collecting opportunities, its silly swinging legs have altered the ways I think about objects – and the WPAMC is all about rethinking objects. It has led me back to the questions that plague all of us material culture scholars: (1) What draws us to objects? (2) Why do we collect the things we do? (3) Why do we have to have them? (4) What do they show us about people in the past and their relationships with objects? I certainly don’t have the answers, but the Elvis clock, and the Southern trip as a whole, challenged me to reconsider these questions from a new perspective.


Elvis Swinging Legs Pendulum Clock

Rewind about twelve hours from the moment I first laid eyes on that swinging leg beauty. We had been enjoying dinner at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Skier, renowned collectors of Ashcan School paintings, lover’s eyes, Victorian calling card cases, and much more. When we asked the Skiers why they collected what they did, they had two answers. First, they collected things they simply liked. Things they thought were beautiful, fun, or unique. Second, the Skiers recognized their roles as current stewards of objects. Those objects had entire lives before them, and they hope those objects will have lives beyond them. Therefore, each had at least one story about where the object came from and another story about how it ended up with the Skiers. In short, they collected things that shared stories – whether those stories be of themselves, their heritage, or others.

Before those gorgeous tea caddies and calling card cases were antiques, they lived disparate lives with entirely different owners. Many were probably used day-to-day. Others may have been kept on a shelf for enjoying from afar. Whether beautiful, quirky, silly, or absurd in some way, they were visually appealing to their original owners – even if to others they were mere frivolities. Regardless, they were worth the effort of saving because they embodied relationships, memories and experiences those earlier owners shared. Why do we keep things in the first place? Sometimes because they’re rare, or economically valuable, but most often because they serve as physical memories of people, experiences, and places we have otherwise lost.

Southern Highland Arts and Crafts Guild, Asheville, NC. Image Courtesy of SHACG.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, TN

At the end of nearly every stop on the Southern trip, we exited through the gift shop: the place for people to pick something up to record the memory of an experience. At Highland Arts and Crafts Center, some of us purchased hand-crafted kitchen tools to add to our collections. At J.Q. Dickinson, we tasted salt so delicious that we all brought home a jar, not just to have, but to share with friends. From the Stax Museum of Soul Music, our Director of Academic Affairs brought home an Otis Redding Greatest Hits CD, which contained the song he and his daughter will dance to at her wedding. And at pretty much every stop I got myself some post cards. While these are small souvenirs, rather than Robert Henri paintings, we packed our vans full with objects that share stories and embody the WPAMC Southern Trip experience. I am a temporary steward of the objects I brought back, and as a historian, I hope that someone, someday will delve into my post card collection and unravel all they can share. Maybe those historians will miss something about me because I never did bring home that Elvis clock. Perhaps they will have had some theories on why I loved it so much (I for one, still have no explanation for that). Or maybe they will figure out that I was a non-impulsive, carefully, calculated collector squeezed into a University of Delaware mini-van for eight days with eleven other historians, travelling to over thirty incredible sites in which we spent more time delving into the past than wandering the gift shop. In the end, we only brought back what we could.

A tired, but excited WPAMC ’18 after their first full day on the Southern Trip, Grove Park Inn, Asheville, NC.

By Becca Duffy, WPAMC Class of 2018

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