Souvenir Taking Is Vandalism

 For tourists traveling to sacred or extraordinary cultural heritage sites, taking a piece of a monument, sculpture, or work of art as a souvenir becomes a powerful, authentic, and tangible connection to a disappearing past (Gordon, 1986; Sears, 2018). The act of 'souvenir-taking' within cultural heritage sites have been recorded throughout history, and it continues to be an ongoing problem across the world. Accounts of tourists taking a chisel and hammer to the Neolithic stones of Stonehenge have been recorded as early as 1740, where this destructive behavior was not only accustomed but expected (Sears, 2018). In the 18th and 19th century, upper-class citizens began breaking off small pieces of ancient stones from their travels all over the world as souvenirs or keepsakes. Once domestic travel became more accessible and affordable, higher numbers of tourists had access to plunder cultural heritage sites (Sears, 2018). This amplification in tourism went hand-in-hand with an increase in vandalism and theft. Since then, millions of tourists visit cultural heritage sites every year, and many continue to feel the need to bring a tangible trace of an authentic experience imbued with symbolic meaning home with them in the form of a souvenir (Ballengee-Morris, 2002; Gordon, 1986). However, within one moment, one action, pilfering a souvenir from a cultural heritage site fuses theft and vandalism within the facets of art crime, harming the fundamental preservation of cultural property and the significance of world heritage. This willful act of damage is opportunistically taken, and to support this assertion, I will first define how souvenir-taking is not an act of depreciative behavior, but a combination of both vandalism and theft. This will be followed by an analysis of Cohen and Felson (1979) 's Routine Activities Theory (RAT) demonstrating how souvenir-taking is a crime of opportunity rather than a crime prompted by a specific motivation. I will then conclude with a discussion of how tourism and souvenir-taking critically harm cultural heritage sites around the world.

Given the wide variability for conceptual interpretation of vandalism, depreciative behavior, and theft, this essay adopts the following working definitions of these crimes. Understanding and defining these terms is essential to understanding the contextual significance of what 'souvenir-taking' is in terms of an art crime. The origin of the term 'vandalism' was attributed to an ancient Germanic group called 'the vandals' by Romans, as the barbarian people who sacked and looted Rome in AD 455. In modern criminology, the definition of the term vandalism differs based on the perspective that is linked and is classified to a varied number of motivated behaviors. Behaviors, that highlight and imply the following: intentionality of the actor, such as purposeful destruction; context around the act, to account for different degrees of tolerance towards damaging acts; and damage to public or private property, as the outcome of the behavior determines whether said behavior constitutes as vandalism or not (Moser, 1992; Bhati & Pearce, 2016; McGuire, 2004; Millie, 2008; Ceccato, 2015). While theft has been defined as 'the physical removal of an object that is capable of being stolen intentionally and fraudulently without permission or consent of the owner and with the intent to deprive the owner of it permanently' as well as 'the opportunistic, willful, or premeditated illegal removal of an asset' (Pasco, 2012; Institute, 2018). As a consequence, vandalism and theft cover a myriad of motivation, making it difficult to disentangle from similar conduct, such as depreciative behavior (Ceccato, 2015).

In terms of depreciative behavior, the critical distinction between vandalism and theft is that one does not recognize the relationship between one's actions and the consequences of those actions may not be intentional (Namba & Dustin, 1992). At the same time, in vandalism the perpetrator of the act 'knows better'; their impacts are intended, and they are aware of the relationship between their actions and their consequences (Namba & Dustin, 1992; Ceccato, 2015). Through examining Namba and Dustin's (1992) 'continuum of depreciative behavior and vandalism' (figure 1.), three distinctions can be developed between depreciative behavior and vandalism on the lines of intent, awareness of consequences, and responsibility, all of which explain how souvenir-taking is more vandalistic than depreciative. The first distinction is the matter of intent: the impacts of depreciative behavior are defined as unintended, while the impacts of vandalistic behavior are categorized as intended (Namba & Dustin, 1992). When a fragment is detached, or a piece is broken off of cultural property (i.e., a monument, sculpture, or work of art), then that souvenir is intentionally removed, thus damaging the object. The second and third distinctions relate to an awareness of the consequences of one's actions (Namba & Dustin, 1992). Individuals who participate in depreciative behavior are incognizant of the consequences of their actions, and in that sense, they are not responsible for them (Namba & Dustin, 1992). Vandals, in contrast, are aware of the consequences of their actions and are responsible for their behavior (Namba & Dustin, 1992). According to Namba and Dustin (1992), the continuum should be considered in matters of degree:

‘Such a continuum suggests that depreciative behavior and vandalism should not be construed as either/or propositions. The more one intends to engage in actions known to have negative consequences, the more vandalistic those intentions become. The more aware one is of the negative consequences of one's actions, the more vandalistic those actions become. The more one engages in actions known to have negative consequences, the more responsible for those vandalistic engagements one becomes (pg. 65).’

As a result, when individuals understands the effects of their actions and behavior, and they are consciously acting in a manner that is defined as inappropriate by society, they are vandalizing (Namba & Dustin, 1992). On the other hand, if an individual is unaware of the effects and consequences of their actions and they 'do not know any better to act the way they act,' that is when their behavior can be categorized as depreciative (Namba & Dustin, 1992). Even with varying degrees of overlap between vandalism and depreciative behavior, they are not analogous to one another (Ceccato, 2015). Vandalism is often considered a criminal offense that is punishable by fine or imprisonment depending on the severity of the damage of property.

In this context, 'souvenir-taking' would not be defined as picking up a stone from a walkway or off of the ground of a cultural heritage site. While that too can cause irreparable damage, that action is not to deface or fraudulently deprive the public of valuable cultural property. Instead, 'souvenir-taking' would be defined as an act of opportunity where one forcibly removes a piece of a monument, sculpture, or work of art from a cultural heritage site, thus depriving the general public of its entire opulence. By detaching a fragment or piece of a monument, sculpture, or work of art, the individual understands that his or her actions will change the aesthetic and physical exterior. The individual or offender in this instance is knowingly damaging public property to retrieve a sample of the site as a keepsake. Once the item has been removed, the intent to steal the piece of property happens the moment the item is put into an individual’s pocket, backpack, or is carried on their person, in turn defacing and at times permanently damaging the piece of cultural property.

In the instance of souvenir-taking, the opportunity to commit the crime outweighs the individual motivations behind the action. According to Felson and Clarke (1998), ‘an individual's behavior is a product between the person and the setting’ and ‘no crime can occur without the physical opportunities to carry it out.’ To further this idea, Felson and Clarke (1998) identified a single principle within the theory of crime, and its settings by stating, 'easy or tempting opportunities entice people into criminal activity.' By examining specific cases of souvenir-taking from cultural heritage sites from around the world, RAT can be used to show the opportunity to commit the crime is a necessary condition as well as a cause for the crime to occur. RAT explains the criminal event through the convergence of three factors within time and space: a potential or motivated offender with the capacity to commit a crime, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian to prevent or discourage the crime from happening (Cohen & Felson, 1979; Durney, 2009; Conklin, 1994).

When looking at the motivations behind why one might steal a souvenir, one must first identify why people collect souvenirs. Stewart (1993) and Hume (2013) argue that it is an insatiable demand for nostalgia, and as a metonymic object, it operates in accordance with Freud's theory of the fetish. Hume (2013) elaborates on equating the souvenir to a fetish object by stating 'it [the souvenir] is a substitute for that of which is no longer available....a fragment of an experience from which the whole subject of the experience is imaginatively reconstructed'. A souvenir becomes a visual code containing information about the culture, site, and event imbued by the tourist’s own narrative of the experience (Hume, 2013). Although, to other collectors it is an act of impulse and opportunity. Author Rolf Potts in his book 'Souvenir' (2018), attests his collection has always been acquired by spontaneous moments of inspiration; he states, ‘to accumulate souvenirs in a systematic or sequential way, would be at odds with the joy of collecting souvenirs on impulse.’ Therefore, individuals who take souvenirs do not do so with the intention to damage cultural property out of spite or malice, however, this form of vandalism and theft often severely mars the cultural heritage site (Long & Hopkins Burke, 2015). Unlike in art vandalism and art theft, where motivations behind the crimes have been clearly distinguished (i.e., mental illness, envy, protest, or destruction for destruction's sake), no single cause or motivation for souvenir-taking has been identified as sufficient to guarantee its occurrence.

Within RAT, the suitability of a target reflects upon certain factors inherent to the object itself such as, size, value, physical visibility, access, and transportability (i.e., the extent to which the object can be realistically removed) (Durney, 2009; Cullen, Cohen & Felson, 2003). Fragments and pieces removed from cultural heritage sites, unlike looted objects, are generally small in size and are easily hidden in on their person in pockets or backpacks. A souvenir from a cultural heritage site can be as small as a mosaic tile to as large as entire bricks from the interior and exterior walls of a monument or building. In terms of value, collecting a sample of cultural property comes from its material relation to the original or 'natural' location this type of souvenir is not an object of any inherent use or value; generally these keepsakes are not sold (Stewart, 1993). Instead, they arise out of a necessary intention to collect an authentic and tangible piece of an extraordinary time and place (Ballengee-Morris, 2002).

While the capable guardian can be defined as 'the ability of persons or objects to successfully prevent crime' (Madero-Hernandez & Fisher, 2013), the concept of guardianship within cultural heritage sites contains both physical and social elements of crime prevention. Physical guardianship includes security elements of target hardening, such as alarms, locks, CCTV, barriers, and fences. Social guardianship refers to the human element, explicitly place managers; this includes security personnel, employees, volunteers, as well as visitors. Place managers' mere presence and daily activities discourage the potential of criminal activity. While they are not guarding a potential target, they control activities in specific locations (Eck, 1994; 1995; Felson, 1995; Mazerolle et al., 1998; Salomon et al., 2018). Social guardianship, in terms of people visiting cultural heritage sites, becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the only reason we have accounts of this crime occurring is due to visitors to the sites alerting staff and authorities when they witness someone committing the crime. Similar to visitors to a museum, visitors to cultural heritage sites become a vital layer of security, lending their eyes and ears to what is going on around them (Charney, 2009). In an interview Noah Charney (2009) explains this idea of social guardianship in terms of visitors to museums when he stated, 'Because museum visitors are so often vested with a love for the art that they have paid to look at, they are very likely to speak up if they think a person means to do harm to the collection.' However, it has been argued, by Jackson (2016), 'the more visitors in a building, the higher the chance of criminal behavior occurring.' Unfortunately, since cultural heritage sites are mostly vast open-air museums with millions of visitors, it is nearly impossible to have an adequate amount of physical guardianship to protect the cultural property within as well as assess who will be a social guardian versus who will commit a crime.

In turn, insufficient levels of physical and social guardianship can lead to an increase of reported incidents of vandalism and theft in the form of souvenir-taking across the globe. As the world’s largest urban heritage site, there is a constant battle between the authorities and criminals over the vandalization and defacement of ancient monuments and landmarks around the city of Rome. Rome's entire historical city center is defined as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and despite the city's best efforts, the city’s numerous landmarks and monuments are vulnerable to criminal acts (Lyman, 2019). Rome's Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome admitted in a statement to IOL Travel, 'The security is adequate for protecting monuments from terrorism and other risks, but a lack of security personnel causes a problem when there is a mass group of tourists' (Lyman, 2019). Cases of tourists are striking at opportune moments to engage in 'souvenir-taking' by attempting to steal bricks and other fragments from the Colosseum. In 2014, during a school trip, a 15-year-old Canadian broke away a brick from the Colosseum and hid it in her backpack. Another visitor informed the site staff after spotting and photographing the girl. The Italian daily Il Messaggero (2014) reported she wanted to take a 'unique' souvenir. The Canadian teen was apprehended by police, who confiscated the ancient artifact (Scammell, 2014). In June of 2018, an Austrian tourist, aged 17, was spotted detaching a brick fragment from one of the outer colonnades of the amphitheater, before attempting to conceal it in his backpack. Unaware of the presence of the Carabinieri, he was immediately blocked and intercepted on the spot. Another incident occurred in 2018 when a 47-year-old tourist from India was spotted by other visitors removing an entire brick from an inside wall after he detached from a tour group at the historic attraction. While the brick was recovered and replaced, the tourist was not apprehended, and Rome's Carabinieri wants to charge him with 'damage and unlawful appropriation of cultural assets belonging to the state' (Larcan, 2018). To increase security efforts, the staff of the Colosseum are giving visitors fair warning about the legal repercussions of damaging the site, announcements are made in multiple languages informing they will face fines and legal action will be taken if they are caught.

The ancient city of Pompeii is a labyrinth of narrow stone streets, where some areas are walled off by fences and gates, most of which are not entirely secure. The site becomes an easy target due to its scarcity of security and its size; much of the site is not under video surveillance (Latza Nadeau, 2014). The cultural ministry of Italy admits, ‘there is little it can do to stop tourists from taking bits and pieces from sites’ (Latza Nadeau, 2014). Massimo Osanna, Pompeii's new superintendent said in a statement, 'There is some video surveillance, but there are no guards. If a tourist climbs over a fence and finds himself directly into an area where it is no longer visible, anything can happen.' (Latza Nadeau, 2014). While there are ‘access prohibited’ signs all over the city to prevent tourists from entering run down areas, some are posted on low gates, which an individual could easily climb over (image 1). A piece of marble and 13 fragments of terracotta believed to be removed from the well-preserved villa of the House of Loreius Tiburtinus, were confiscated from a French tourist and his companion in May of 2018 (Local It, 2018). The couple told Carabinieri they 'they wanted to take home a souvenir' (Local It, 2018). Just this year, in April of 2019, 20 tiles were chiseled off a mosaic by a 21-year old British tourist while visiting the Casa dell' Ancora villa with her family (Hockaday, 2019). The Metro UK (2019), reported she refused to give the guards her details and walked off after dropping the 8x8mm pieces on the ground. She caused £2,600 in damage to the mosaic and showed little remorse when she was confronted by the police (Hockaday, 2019). Authorities face an enormous challenge to protect the site from souvenir-takers, looters, and the wear-and-tear of millions of visitors that come to Pompeii each year.

A more extreme case of souvenir-taking took place on Easter Island in 2008. Finnish tourist Marko Kulju used his bare hands to tear off the right earlobe from a 13-foot moai statue located on the Anakena beach (image 2) (Quilodran, 2008). The original piece of the earlobe fell to the ground, fracturing into smaller pieces measuring 20 - 30 cm each. According to the Associated Press (2008) article about the theft, 'A native Rapanui woman told authorities she witnessed the theft and saw Kulju fleeing from the scene with a piece of the statue in his hand. Police later identified him by the tattoos the woman saw on his body' (Quilodran, 2008). Kulju severely damaged one of the 400 statues scattered across the island, and authorities are assessing the damage to see if the statue can be repaired (Quilodran, 2008). The moai statues are carved human figures with oversized heads, often resting on massive stone pedestals called ahus. Inhabitants carved the statues during the 13th–16th centuries to represent deceased ancestors. Kulju was later apprehended, fined USD 17,000, and agreed to not return to the island for three years (Quilodran, 2008). Easter Island government official Liliana Castro stated, 'Fortunately, this type of thing does not happen every day….but it does happen, and it is almost impossible to control because on Easter Island there are sites of great archaeological value everywhere and the park guards cannot prevent all such incidents' (Quilodran, 2008). Over 120,000 people arrived on Easter Island in 2018, and while they explore and hike the more remote areas, they have the ability to walk amongst countless remnants without anyone around to make sure the artifacts and monuments are not disturbed (Edensky, 2015).

In 2018, 7.4 million visitors passed through the Colosseum in Rome, 3 million people walked through the labyrinth of Pompeii (Image 3), and 1.5 million people visited Stonehenge. The inflation of tourists passing through these open-air museums along with absent, flawed, or substandard protections renders the sites vulnerable to an increase in souvenir-taking. Cultural heritage sites are the monuments of a country's cultural identity, and even the smallest amount of damage or general loss of any work of art in the form of souvenir-taking harms the fundamental preservation of cultural property and the significance of world heritage. This sentiment is echoed by Clarke and Szydlo (2017) in their book 'Stealing history: Art theft, looting, and other crimes against our cultural heritage':

'A country's culture is defined by various moments throughout history. In many cases, these moments are represented and defined through artwork and monuments...It is impossible for anyone to think through their culture's history and not...view the identity displayed or defined through artistic representation. As such, it is impossible not to understand the full impact of a culture's reliance on these objects, as well as the importance of maintaining them’ (pg. 21).

Imagine if every tourist that passed through the Colosseum took one brick, or one mosaic tile from Pompeii, or chiseled a chunk off the site of one of the Neolithic stones on Stonehenge those sites would cease to exist for any future generation. While tourists strive to attain an authentic piece or fragment associated with a connection with an actual person, place, or event, they commit two different crimes with one action (Bird, 2013). It could be argued that the damage inflicted from taking a souvenir is minor and trivial, yet realistically, the theft and vandalism of cultural property carry more significant social consequences than that of extensive vandalism and theft. Harming irreplaceable cultural property within a heritage site endangers the physical embodiment of world culture (Williams, 2008). This unauthorized and intentional damage to cultural property violates the social norms to preserve and protect that of public value as well as violate the laws surrounding property rights (Williams, 2008). All of this is notwithstanding to the future efforts of target-hardening solutions cultural heritage sites will need to implement to try and prevent this crime. Thus, affecting how future visitors interact with the sites. Replicas will replace original and authentic objects and monuments, barriers and fences will limit access to areas of the site, removing the ability to have an authentic and extraordinary experience. As Assistant Director Swecker, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (2006), states, 'Theft of cultural property is a world-wide problem…Objects of art and cultural heritage enhance all our lives and represent a legacy of history and art for future generations. Theft of cultural property, no matter where in the world, impoverishes us all.'


To accord a tourists actions as 'unknowing' or 'depreciative' is inappropriate in terms of their behavior when taking a souvenir from a cultural heritage site. The purposeful and conscious conduct of these individuals forever deprives the world of a piece of a country's cultural identity. They unlawfully confiscate a fragment of authentic material, that represents a fraction of the value of the object in order to create their narrative to an unfamiliar environment, to recall a moment of discovery, and to take a token from a world that is bigger and older than themselves (Arlan, 2018). Souvenir-taker's follow the model of Cohen and Felson (1979)'s Routine Activities Theory; they become the motivated offender when they break away from guides and family members to steal a brick from the Colosseum, or an earlobe off of a moai statue, because they intend to take a piece for themselves. The symbolism, culture, and history that permeates every stone of cultural heritage sites serve as a suitable target. The paucity in physical and social guardianship within these extensive outdoor museums makes them incredibly vulnerable to light-fingered tourists. Unfortunately, there is no way to empirically quantify the damage of tourists taking souvenirs due to the fact that the only evidence we have is from the limited number of offenders that have been apprehended. With millions of tourists passing through these sites, one can only imagined how many of them are pocketing a piece of cultural property without being seen. This need to acquire an authentic and tangible piece from an extraordinary place and time is detrimental to the preservation of our collective world heritage and every site is at risk.  

07 July 2022
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