Being Human

Being human festival

A new forum for engagement with the humanities

In the run up to our Engage 2014 conference, we are exploring the conference themes of 'Captivating places; Captivating ideas; Captivating people: Unlocking the potential of curiosity-driven engagement'. Here, Dr Michael Eades, curator of the Being Human festival, shares the engaging idea of the UK’s first national festival of the humanities.

In the early stages of planning Being Human, we tried to ask ourselves some searching questions. The first of these was, quite simply: do people really need another festival? After all, events of this type have proliferated to such an extent in recent years that people are now talking about ‘festival fatigue’. Were we entering a hopelessly over-subscribed field?

The second question, big question, that we wrestled with was whether there was a need (and a desire) for a new festival geared specifically to the humanities. After all, there are innumerable arts and literature festivals, a well established Festival of Social Science and even some excellent humanities festivals run on local levels by universities. But no national festival of the humanities. Why not?

To us, this seemed like an obvious gap. We began to wonder why nobody seemed to have attempted to fill it. Was there something inherent to the humanities that would make national collaboration difficult, we wondered? After all, those working and researching in the humanities tend to feel allegiances to a particular disciplines — classics, archeology, philosophy, etc. — rather than to the subject group as a whole. Perhaps it was something about the term ‘humanities’ itself, which is both specific and mutable, exact yet strangely resistant to simple definition.

Would a ‘festival of the humanities’ inspire people? Would it capture peoples’ imaginations? Would it mean anything at all to anyone outside the academic world?

Our vision

I won’t claim that we have found the answers to those questions over the past year and a half. However, exploring them did help us to clarify our vision of the kind of festival that Being Human should be, and what it should try achieve in its first year.

In 2014 we wanted to create a festival that would provide a national snapshot of the inspiring work taking place across disciplinary boundaries within the humanities. Without being defensive or submitting to narratives of ‘crisis’, we wanted simply to demonstrate the richness, vitality and vibrancy of work conducted every day within the humanities, and to demonstrate the myriad ways in which it connects to the everyday lives of people across the UK.

We also wanted to create a new national forum through which scholars, writers, readers and humanities ‘geeks’ could share stories and ideas, and get a sense of public engagement activities happening across the country. We hoped that in doing so we would be able to inspire people to make new connections and set up new collaborations with colleagues and with cultural and community partners. In doing so, we hoped that they might find new ways of exploring and communicating their work.

Being Human image

We have done a lot over the past year or so. Our first Being Human programme features over 150 events from nearly 60 universities across the country. Stretching from Aberdeen to Exeter, Belfast to Bangor, we have been delighted to see Being Human events popping up in every corner of the UK. There are a few exceptions, but we can say that nearly every major city in Britain will feature Being Human activities geared towards public engagement with humanities, which is an encouraging start.

More gratifying still, perhaps, has been the growth of our online community. Over 1,000 people are currently following our twitter account. Events organisers and others (including leading professors in the humanities along with new and emerging scholars) have contributed fantastic articles to our Being Human blog. Across these platforms our nascent community of humanities advocates, communicators and ‘geeks’ have been communicating, sharing ideas, talking to one another. The connections made here might, we hope, be one of the enduring legacies of this year’s festival.

Starting a new festival on this scale presents real challenges. We can’t claim that we have got everything right first time, and look forward to learning from our evaluation what we could have done better. But we hope that we have planted the seed of something that might grow in coming years to become an essential part of the public engagement landscape. We want it to become a space of inspiration, exchange and innovation for those committed to sharing the wealth embedded in the humanities. That wealth resides in ideas, creativity and knowledge; we want it to be a wealth that is shared and replenished by all.

Come and join us at Being Human 2014!

Being Human is the UK’s first national festival of the humanities. Between 15-23 Nov it will feature over 150 public engagement events and activities across the country dedicated to building public understanding of the humanities. The festival is led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.

What do you think of a festival geared entirely towards the humanities? What would your engaging idea be? Join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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