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Festival of Ideas: Do everyday objects give modern lives meaning?

Posted on 12 June 2017

Archaeologists, philosophers, health experts, and poets have teamed up to investigate how everyday objects have defined human lives throughout history.

Why do we care about certain objects?

The team from the University of York are asking members of the public to submit the stories behind their favourite objects, - from treasured jewellery and books, to chinaware, ornaments, and children’s toys, as part of a research survey into the emotional significance that meaningful objects could have on everyday life.

The results of the survey will be revealed to a live audience at York’s city-wide Festival of Ideas on Wednesday, 14 June.  

The event will also coincide with the launch of ‘The Story of Things’ podcast series, which will explore three objects – a hand axe from approximately 70,000 years ago; a brooch containing a photograph from the 1950s; and a children’s book from the 1990s.

Human ancestors

Dr Penny Spikins, from the University’s Department of Archaeology, said: “We are interested in the emotional importance of human possessions and what it is that makes them so important to us. 

“Why do we care about certain objects in ways that other animals do not? When did our ancestors start to see the things they made or used as more than just something functional? Has our attachment to objects helped us deal with uniquely human feelings?

“We want to know how we evolved to attach such significance to objects and whether they give our modern-day lives any meaning.  Can certain objects reduce anxiety levels and improve our mental health for example.  Or is it the stories behind the objects that make them meaningful and not the object itself?”

Value of stories

The research forms part of the York Festival of Ideas, which hosts more than 180 events, including talks, performances and exhibitions, at sites across the city and University.

Dr Dorothea Debus, from the University’s Department of Philosophy, said: “From a philosophical perspective will be asking what the value of stories might be and how objects can help us in our quest for understanding and meaning in the world around us.  We will also ask if and how objects could give us a sense of stability in times of stress, grief, or fear.”

Members of the public are invited to hear from the researchers on how they have evaluated certain attachments to objects at a live event in The Treehouse, at the Berrick Saul Building, University of York, from 6.15pm on Wednesday, 14 June.

To register for the event, The Stories Behind our Favourite Things, visit: 

Further information:

To take part in the online research survey visit:

To listen to the teaser trailer of ‘The Story of Things’ podcast series visit:

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