The Campaign for Objects in Purgatory

Julia Keyte, Sheffield Hallam University

The first stage of a part-time article based PhD in design, examining the emotional dimensions of keeping home possessions

Disciplinary background(s) Product and jewellery design, craft

When did the research take place? The 1st phase of the Campaign for Objects in Purgatory, which is outlined here, took place in May 2011.

Aims of research 

The Campaign for Objects in Purgatory examines how the meaning of a possession develops and changes as it is integrated into the home, and explores the implications of this for research on emotionally sustainable design, and for designers seeking to create lasting meaning in their products.

Through the Campaign I collect the stories of uncherished gifts, which despite their negative associations for the owner, are still kept. These possessions offer rich potential for exploring attachment, because they usually embody a contradiction in emotional value; as much as a recipient might want to rid themselves of an uncherished gift, they may also feel compelled to keep it.

Description of creative research method

In order to gather data on uncherished gifts, and to create open discussion on how they are located in the home, I staged a live event and exhibition through which I collected uncherished gifts and their connected narratives, by inviting audience contributions.  Visitors were invited to describe their object and its location, to enter into a discussion about its story, and to exhibit their submission in the exhibition. Each contribution took the form of a physical object, photo, sketch, written text or recorded audio narrative.


The exhibition took place in the Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery over 8 days in May 2011. The majority of participants were university community, although members of the public also visited and contributed. 72 objects and / or their stories were submitted.

The drawings, photos and narratives collected were catalogued, and a two-stage coding exercise used to identify patterns and themes. The first stage sought to categorize the more straightforward descriptive data (e.g. object, giver, location) and to identify the themes addressed or suggested in the submissions (e.g. the reason for disliking the object, or conflicts over the value of an object between family members).  The second stage sought to interpret and categorize expressions of value and emotion connected to the objects.

1970's telephone

Why did you choose to use this method? 

The method developed out of my own creative practice, initially as a way of raising discussion about Christmas gift giving, and its role in hyper-consumption.  The open and discursive nature of the project allowed themes and ideas to arise from visitors’ discussion of their experiences.

As visitors contributed their objects and stories, these in turn prompted new visitors to engage with the project, and to contribute.

What did you learn from the research process? 

The objects and stories were displayed anonymously. This was especially important as there was a risk inherent in publically revealing the stories of unwanted gifts that had been given in good faith.  It became apparent that many visitors enjoyed engaging in this shared public disclosure of stories that aren’t normally discussed; it was a successful method of opening up a subject that is not always easy to pursue through conventional research methods (such as an interview with an individual participant).

Annotated drawings formed the majority of submissions and were key to the effectiveness of the exhibition, as they allowed visitors to make immediate responses.  Drawing and writing facilitated personal expression, but objective information about the object was limited. Recorded audio narratives usually contained more detail about the object and its story, and enabled self-expression through language and vocal emphasis.


A diverse range of conflicts in meaning connected to the gifts were evident in the collected data. Most commonly, contributors expressed distaste in connection with their objects, and this was often expressed alongside disappointment with a fake brand, perceived material cheapness, or a style conflicting with the home interior. Yet despite these negative associations participants were compelled or motivated to keep their objects. Meaning was often present, expressed as connections to memories, important people, and appreciation of a personal investment, e.g. hand-making.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Halton, E. (1981) The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Chamberlain, P., and Yoxall, A. (2012). ‘Of Mice and Men: the Role of Interactive Exhibitions as Research Tools for Inclusive Design’. The Design Journal, 15(1): 57-78.

Wellcome Trust (2010) Public invited to contribute ‘Things’ to Sir Henry Wellcome’s curious collection. Available: [link] [accessed 31st August, 2012].

Further information