Cultures of hope and fear in Nottingham
By Professor Maiken Umbach, Professor of Modern History, University of Nottingham
We asked the University of Nottingham’s festival advocate a few question about their hub programme, Cultures of hope and fear, which explores Nottingham as a crucible of religions and peoples from around the world.
Touching on everything from human rights, the legacies and histories of slavery, and community divisions in the aftermath of Brexit, the programme shows how humanities research can deepen our understanding of ‘Cultures of hope and fear’ in the broadest possible context.
You’ve agreed to act as an advocate for the University of Nottingham’s Being Human festival programme this year. Why did you say yes?
There is much talk of the crisis of Humanities in the University sector: and yet, in so many ways, these disciplines are needed more today than ever before. To be sure, Science is key to addressing some of the challenges we face, from antimicrobial resistance via sustainable foods to climate change. Yet if the past ten years have taught us anything, then it is, surely, that no solution to the pressing problems of today is viable if it is not supported by communities, if governance structures undermine effective implementation, and if people feel that an elite group of experts is not prioritizing their hopes and anxieties. More than ever, therefore, scholars in Arts and Humanities need to reach out beyond the Ivory Tower, and engage with individuals, organisations and communities across the world to ensure that being human is a positive experience for everyone. This Festival is one amazing occasion for doing just that, in our wonderfully diverse city of Nottingham.
There’s a very diverse programme of events at the University of Nottingham this year. Do you have a favourite?
The Nottingham programme looks at hope and fear from the perspective of different people in time and from different parts of society. The events to be held on Saturday 19 November include a History in sound and stone series that looks at creativity and faith in the medieval period and explores Nottingham’s hidden role as a central place in the creation of medieval religious art. The Walk of hope explores the fear and the anger of the poor in nineteenth century Nottingham. The Rights and justice city series (18, 19 and 21 November) explores how Nottingham can create hope for all by acting to help end slavery in the city and its trading networks, build equality across communities and defeat hate across and between communities in a post-Brexit Britain. Our launch event on Thursday 17 November A conversation dinner strives to bring people together to understand the different people who live in the city and what their hopes and aspirations are. This event will help Arts and Humanities better understand their potential impact on the City and help build partnerships – as the Being Human Festival always does.
Do you believe that the humanities should be more public? How does this connect to your own work?
Humanities have always addressed issues of public concern: culture itself is something that enriches all our lives, and it rightly invokes strong feelings. But new communications technologies mean that as scholars and teachers, we can now reach out to many more people, in our own city, across the UK, and around the world, in much more direct ways than has ever been possible before. At the University of Nottingham, we believe passionately in “engaged Arts”, and our Faculty is proud to host many projects where researchers work directly with communities, businesses, museums, NGOs. This is no longer about simply publicising the results of our research, or to feature as experts in the media. It is working in genuine partnerships with non-academics to help them to achieve their goals. Over the last years, I have had the privilege of working closely in two such partnerships myself. With the British Library, we have collaborated on new digital media, such as MOOCs (free massive open online courses, which attract tens of thousands of learners from all walks of life and all continents) to make the fantastic resources of that great library more relevant to people who have not previously used them. With the National Holocaust Museum in Laxton, Nottinghamshire, we work together to address the problem that the fate of victims of discrimination and genocide is usually commemorated through photos taken by those who perpetrated these crimes. The Holocaust Museum has a fantastic track record of working with schools, teachers and pupils across the country, and collaborating with them it is a wonderful opportunity for us academics to learn from them about how to make our work more relevant to the next generation.
The theme at Nottingham this year is Cultures of hope and fear – how does this connect to your own work?
There is much in the world we need to be fearful about. And yet, fear is also a dangerous thing. As a scholar of Nazi Germany, I am acutely aware of work that has been done, not just by academics, but also by many NGOs with experience of working on the ground in volatile political locations, to identify the causes of racial tensions escalating into violence. This work has revealed that fear is a key factor: whether a threat is real or imagined, fear of it is usually more effective in mobilising people to embrace inhumane attitudes and actions towards others than the expectation of a practical benefit. Therefore, countering a climate of fear is an issue of great topical urgency. Earlier this year, I had the great honour of attending a service in Westminster Abbey, attended by many Holocaust survivors who escaped to the United Kingdom, and their families. James Smith, chairman of the Aegis Trust, delivered a moving address in which he suggested that there was no point in commemorating the Holocaust if this did not spur us to reject homophobia, Islamophobia, or indeed recent hate crimes against members of our Polish community in the UK.
Our festival theme this year is ‘hope and fear’ – what are your fears and hopes for the future of the humanities?
Humanities have too much to offer to society! I am excited about the many ways in which we’ve made these partnerships happen. But this is not just the business of Humanities. In the Centre for the Study of Political Ideologies that I co-direct, scholars across many different Faculties work together to better understand why people hold political beliefs, and what prompts them to change or reconsider their views. Similarly, in Nottingham’s work on how to combat contemporary slavery — which is a huge issue facing the world today — scholars from Humanities and Social Sciences at Nottingham are working closely with Computer Scientists to develop better technologies for identifying hidden centres of slavery across the globe, and for tracking the movements of trafficked people. I see huge potential in such work across disciplines. At the same time, it is important not to limit the Humanities to what seems immediately useful. Think of a University as a diverse eco-system of research: this diversity is key to making sure we are well placed to address the challenges of tomorrow, beyond those we can already foresee today.
Finally, there’s been a lot of fearfulness in 2016. Please tell us about one thing that makes you hopeful for the future.
The enthusiasm of young people. We encounter it in the classroom every week — but we also meet young people in schools, as volunteers in organisations we work with, or as engaged and curious visitors in museums, theatres, and festivals. Our job as educators is to nurture that enthusiasm, and to make sure that the next generation does a better job at looking after our world than we have. And what better place to do this than at Nottingham, which, in recognition of the role that its vibrant cultural life plays in bringing diverse communities together, has just been awarded the accolade of UNESCO City of Literature!
Professor Maiken Umbach works is Modern History at the University of Nottingham. She focuses on the relationship between culture, ideas and politics in modern European history, teasing out the ideological meanings of cultural practices, which range from urban planning to private photography, from official architecture to the design of industrial objects, in order to re-think big concepts such as Enlightenment, modernism, federalism, regionalism, and National Socialism.