Being Human illuminates the humanities at Senate House

Being Human illuminates the humanities at Senate House

Thousands of people across the UK flocked to the start of Being Human, the UK’s first national festival of the humanities, which opened on 15 November, with a staggering 46 public events. They are just part of a major programme of more than 150 free talks, workshops, exhibitions and performances of music, poetry and comedy running over nine days.

The Being Human festival is organised by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS), in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. The festival covers the whole of the UK. Some 60 universities and 120 partner organisations – from Orkney to Truro, Belfast to Swansea, and Liverpool to Norwich – are taking part.

Senate House, the iconic SAS headquarters, played host to Too Much Information, one of the inaugural events, which explored the contemporary phenomenon of ‘data overload’ and its impact on our lives. Comprising 14 events, the day was sponsored by digital publishers Adam Matthew and began with SAS historians Professor Simon Eliot and Dr Henry Irving, taking visitors on guided tours through the history of communication in WWII. Senate House was home to the WWII Ministry of Information and the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984.

The festival then moved on to explore the ‘being human in a digital age’ theme from every angle, including through digital art displays, visualisations and ‘hacks’ of the Mass Observation and Senate House archives and a research ‘Ignite’ session (a participatory event with five minute presentations by young researchers).

The festival was officially opened with speeches by Deborah Bull, Professor Sarah Churchwell and Baroness O’Neil, followed by a lively 90-minute panel discussion, ‘Openness, Secrets and Lies’, chaired by festival director Professor Barry Smith.

The debate started with a synoptic tour of the issues by Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence and co-founder of the Open Data Institute. He was joined by author and broadcaster Ben Hammersley, coiner of the phrase ‘podcasting’, professor of journalism Heather Brooke, literary scholar Dr Sebastian Groes and hactivist Doc Rocket.

Questions raised included, ‘how much privacy can we expect?’ ‘How much openness can we bear?’ ‘Who protects the networks we depend on?’ ‘Are we all puppets in a wired world?’ ‘The growing reach of online surveillance and censorship pose a challenge to the future of democracy, but are hacktivists guardians of democracy or unaccountable ideologues?’

Professor Barry Smith commented: ‘The festival opening provided a great opportunity to explore our digital presence online, with original thinkers making us keenly aware of how the issues of privacy versus security affects us all, and how we are extending our lives in the digital age’.

Alongside the traditional talks, tours and presentations, there were ‘Speakers Corners’ propaganda debates led by journalist Zoe Williams and Professor Jeremy Gilbert from the University of East London, while Senate House was transformed thanks to video artist, Jaime Jackson and funding from the Arts Council England. This audio-visual extravaganza was a real crowd-pleaser, using cutting-edge digital art projections hacked from the Mass Observation and Senate House archives to light up the iconic building.

Currently in its first year, Being Human (1523 November) offers a variety of experiences aiming to make research accessible, and demonstrate the role of the humanities in the cultural, intellectual, political and social life of the UK. The 2014 festival is designed to establish the appetite for a new national festival of the humanities. It is anticipated that this will be the first of many in years to come.

A full schedule of events can be found on the Being Human festival website or follow the festival on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest.

Notes for editors:

1. For all enquiries, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653

2. Being Human: 15-23 November 2014. As the UK’s first national festival of the humanities, the Being Human festival includes more than 150 free events across the UK run by 60 universities and their 120 partners. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, the festival celebrates the value, vitality and relevance of the humanities in 2014. Find out more at, or follow the festival on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest.

3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS) at the University of London is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and facilitation of research in the humanities. The School brings together 10 prestigious research institutes to offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. The member institutes of the School are the Institutes of Advanced Legal Studies, Classical Studies, Commonwealth Studies, English Studies, Historical Research, Latin American Studies, Modern Languages Research, Musical Research, Philosophy, and the Warburg Institute. The School also hosts a cross-disciplinary centre, the Human Rights Consortium, dedicated to the facilitation, promotion and dissemination of academic and policy work on human rights. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

4. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

5. The British Academy is the UK’s national champion of the humanities and social sciences. As a Fellowship of distinguished scholars and researchers from all areas of the humanities and social sciences, it promotes these disciplines and facilitates the exchange of knowledge and ideas. It funds research across the UK and internationally, and seeks to raise understanding of some of the biggest challenges of our time through policy reports, forums, conferences, publications and public events.  For more information, please visit Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news.