Monday, June 7, 2010

Gift Shop PD

I finally made it to the UN Headquarters building on this trip to NYC. Studying international relations and history for so many years, this has definitely been the trip I was very much looking forward to.

As we took the tour, we were reminded every minute or so, how “democratic” and “righteous” the organization is. That aside (although this could make a nice story in and of itself: the “public diplomacy” of the UN), I was particularly curious to visit the UN gift shop, which, I heard, carries certain traditional “items” from various countries.  As I found out, a large number of countries was not represented at all; but many – of my interest – were there and provided a wonderful opportunity to compare the mini “exhibits.” After all, the “showing off” of one’s own country at such a location of global importance could be considered an aspect of one’s public diplomacy effort: impressions, and more importantly, comparisons and contrasts, are very easy to make when the various countries are “present” in the same room with all the best they’ve got to offer (supposedly). Perhaps, something along the lines of the Shanghai Expo...
Not to make it a long and tenuous post, I’ll focus on the countries I – personally – paid special attention to.
U.S. apparently certain they don’t need to “impress” the curious visitors of the UN gift shop limited their section to a small selection of some depression glass. It’s still a mystery to me as to why the most influential country in the world, as well as the largest contributor to the UN budget, could not come up with something better for the world public (makes me wonder whether it’s really a reflection of the more general American attitude towards PD…)?
Russia has a very small but impressive “exhibit”. As you can see, they made sure to show off the traditional Russian dolls and the hand-painted jewelry cases. They also had the traditional Russian earrings and pendants, the amber, and of course, the matryoshkas. Small, but certainly cute and more or less representative of Russia as a whole. Still, I did not get any impression of grandeur or vastness.
Georgia apparently made sure to outdo the Russians and had two sections: the jewelry and the traditional “exhibit.” Gold and silver? Check. Traditional “kinto” dolls and scarves? Check. Certainly impressive and lavish, especially for a country of that size. Also, quite telling about the ambitions and the role that it wants to play, be it on a regional or the global stage. Well done!
Armenia? One word: lame. Of course, our UN Mission should be given credit for making sure that we have our section in the shop, at least. But the exhibit is truly pathetic, whether in absolute or in relative terms: a horrid doll, a silver platter, and two wooden/carved souvenirs. I couldn’t find Armenia in the jewelry section, so I asked the shop assistant about it, to make sure I don’t miss it somehow. But no, they don’t carry anything Armenian. Such a shame! What about our gold and silver jewelry tradition? What about our crystals, minerals, and stones that make such beautiful bijoux and souvenirs?  What about our carpets and khatchkars (cross-stones: traditional Armenian), at the very least? I’m very disappointed…
Azerbaijan did a good job too, especially when I compare their section to that of my own country. Lots of colors, typical carpet souvenirs, and “slippers”. Traditional and cute. Of course, a much greater variety could have been included, especially given that the country takes up the “shelf space” anyway (I do think some of the carpets and slippers could have been replaced with other items); yet,  the Azeri section certainly makes a much better impression than that of its first rival: Armenia.
Turkey, the “big brother” around, made sure to have a “special” representation. It had three sections (the only country to do so, as far as I noticed): an abundance of Turkish pottery and enamel-plated ceramic souvenirs, scarves and needlework, typical jewelry, and the traditional “blue eye” to protect from malice. Of course, the blue color and the Islamic floral patterns dominate, but other than that, there was nothing to speak of Turkey’s religious identity. Beautiful, impressive, and with taste.
Israel took up two sections: jewelry and glassware. The bright pomegranates made sure to catch the shopper’s attention, while the silver and bijoux featured some traditional patterns, shapes, and of course, the khamsa (Fatima’s Hand). Neat.
Again, this is by no means a comprehensive review of the country sections or the items available at the shop, and I might as well have missed some important parts. These are just some quick, first-time impressions, from my personal perspective as a curious UN HQ visitor, who just happened to stop by the gift shop. But then, this can arguably be similar to the perspective of any other UN visitor, and countries should not lose the opportunity of “impressing” other “publics” at such venues.
I don’t know whether the sales there are for profit, or rather donations from the mission members, and what it takes for a country to obtain a “section” at the shop. It might be a fairly expensive “venture”: costly to get and difficult to maintain. However, given they occupy the space anyway, its utility and effectiveness can be maximized, and certain countries (Armenia especially) could have put more thought and effort into what they show off at the heart of the "true international community".



  1. Lena -- Great piece -- a very original perspective on PD. Bravo! I hope you don't mind if I steal your photos for today's Public Diplomacy Review. Best, John

  2. I agree with Mr. Brown. Indeed, a very interesting piece and great pictures!
    I am humbled, nay mortified, since last March I was at the UN HQ on a daily basis for about a fortnight. I went to gift shops and the book shop almost on a daily basis buying small souvenirs, books, etc. As it was my third visit there over the years, I did not notice many changes. In fact, now I realized that I missed a lot of interesting things. Well, next time (if ever) I will be more attentive.
    Thanks again.
    I hope to read more about PD by the UN, if you care to write about that.

  3. Thanks for the compliments. I think it is more than just natural to start making the comparisons when the differences are so stark, and since I was really disappointed in Armenia's section, the thoughts - obviously - took me towards PD. Again :)

    @ Dr. Brown: I would be only happy and honored if you used the photos.

    @ Vlad: You have, indeed, missed a great deal, but I'm sure you'll be more attentive to the non-book sections of the UN store next time, too :))

  4. I also particularly curious to visit the UN gift shop,because if you making this as a gift its absolutely adorable. Anyway,thank you so much for bringing up this.