Why we are celebrating the humanities (again!)
What does a ‘festival of the humanities’ look like? Are you picturing lots of academics addressing packed lecture theatres, or talking to rooms of rapt listeners in town halls and museums? Well, Being Human 2014 did had some of that, it’s true. But it also had a lot more. The 162 events we coordinated across the UK took virtually every form imaginable: magic lantern shows, philosophy debates in pubs, tours of historic execution sites in rural Somerset, beachcombing on the Orkney shoreline…
If there’s one thing we wanted to achieve with the Being Human 2014 programme it was to get way from ‘conventional’ academic talks which rely on academics, well, lecturing people: talking at passive audiences. The challenge that we put out there was for researchers in the humanities to explore genuinely imaginative and unusual ways of communicating their research and making it as interesting and engaging to others as they, and we, believe it to be ourselves.
You could say that those working in the humanities have a disadvantage in this area. Unlike our colleagues in the natural sciences we don’t (necessarily) have ready access to explosions and high- tech gadgets. We don’t have Brian Cox or David Attenborough. Unlike our colleagues in the Social Sciences, too, we don’t (necessarily) have direct links to policy discussions and to think-tanks feeding ‘applied’ political debates.
On the other hand though you could argue that those of us connected to the humanities have an enormous advantage over these other subject areas. We have at our fingertips the knowledge and resources that make up most people’s idea of what constitutes ‘culture’ (and the resources to question what ‘culture’ is). We have some of the most fascinating and most studied subjects in higher education, which have demonstrated again and again their capacity to cross into the popular imagination via novels, TV programmes, exhibitions and films. Think of the recent success of the books and now TV programme Wolf Hall. The 16th-century court of Henry XIII may not be the most obvious source of mainstream fascination, but via Hilary Mantel’s work it has become the focus of a cultural phenomenon.
The pleasure of Being Human
Those working in the humanities shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the fact that what we do is not only valuable to society but also, on a basic level, interesting, engaging and fun. It’s not a sign of intellectual weakness to explore different platforms to communicate the enthusiasm that we feel for what we do, or to learn that other people out there share our sense of deep curiosity about the human world around us.
What does a humanities festival look like? We’re delighted to offer one version of that in the wonderful film that has been made using footage from some of the Being Human events that took place across the country in 2014.
We are also delighted to be opening up that question as a challenge in 2015. What will a humanities festival look like? Well, you tell us… Get involved and show us the best and most exciting stuff that you are working on, and join in the fun of sharing this with a curious audience.
See our 2015 call for applications for details.
Dr Michael Eades, Being Human Curator