Being Human on a shoestring (or why big budgets don’t necessarily mean great public engagement)
By Dr Michael Eades, Public Engagement Manager and Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study
Dr Michael Eades, curator of the Being Human festival, discusses imaginative ways to make public engagement happen with limited funding. Get some top tips on being creative and resourceful, while not breaking the bank.
Being Human is a very ‘human’ festival. It is a festival all about communicating humanities research, of course, but it’s also a festival that operates on a very human scale. Most of our events and activities are ‘handmade’ by the experts and academics themselves. Many of them are quite small scale, and rely more on ingenuity and enthusiasm than they do on big-name speakers. Sometimes the events do have big names involved, of course, but they are more likely to be wearing some sort of handmade historical costume than delivering a TED talk.
Does that mean an expert taking part in the festival will have to ‘dumb down’? Not really. Does it mean they need significant funding behind them to do an activity? No. Does it mean they’ll have to think about pitching an activity a bit more carefully to meet the needs, interests and expectations of their audience? Yes, absolutely.
At their very best, Being Human activities create experiences that are inspiring, memorable and moving both for the people who attend them and for those who organise them. The scale of these experiences can vary dramatically – from fully staged performances to much more intimate activities like walks, tours, pop-up events. Some of the best and most successful haven’t cost a lot of money to put together. Some of them have cost virtually nothing.
Good activities that are light on resources include, for example, walking tours and behind-the-scenes style activities, object handling, craft events (if people can bring their own materials), events in pubs or cafes, pop-up events in galleries and museums where there’s no space charge (and potentially an existing audience), board game nights, even talks can be really good if they are entertaining, pitched at the right level, don’t go on too long and – crucially – don’t take place on a university campus.
The things that really cost money with public engagement events are performer fees, props, costumes venue hire, marketing and promotion, and food and drink. Some tips for keeping costs down, but maintaining event quality, therefore include the following.
1. Do an event where you (as researcher) are the main ‘performer’: a walking tour, a short talk, a behind-the scenes tour – anything that puts you centre stage.
2. Use existing infrastructure: work with museums, libraries, galleries, community centres and see how your expertise can add something new to their existing collections and resources – for example by doing a themed tour of a museum or gallery, an object handling session, a pop up stall.
3. Go where there’s an existing audience: again, museums, galleries, libraries, public spaces are good for this. Anywhere where there’s a passing footfall and potential to walk up on the day. It’s also worth seeing whether you can bag a slot in a regular series of gallery tours, lunchtime talks, etc. This takes a considerable burden off in terms of promoting your activity.
4. Do an activity where people bring their own materials: maker events, ‘stich and bitch’ sessions, even music based events where people bring an instrument are not uncommon. We’ve had really practical events in the programme before where people get together to solve a problem and share skills, such as planting a garden, creating an exhibition , or bringing things that need mending.
These are just a few tips and ideas. There are many other ways to make things happen. It’s a good general rule though that simple activities which take an established format and give them a fresh, creative twist and foregrounds the underlying research, are often the most successful, as are activities that are simple, fun, and enjoyable for everyone involved to deliver.
In other words, keep it simple, have fun, and keep everything as human as possible!