Newcastle University’s ‘From The Source to The Sea’
By Dr Jonathan Hicks, research fellow at the Humanities Research Institute, Newcastle University
Jonathan Hicks, from Newcastle University, explains what it takes to put on a Being Human hub. With great advice on how to manage a series of events, Jonathan explores every step of the planning and delivery process, from choosing a clear target audience which informs venue selection to having all hands on deck on the day.
Tell us a little bit about your festival hub and what it involved?
As a festival hub, we hosted a wide range of events in locations within and beyond Newcastle. Since our events were themed around the course of the Tyne, we thought of events according to their location on this great river. The furthest upstream was the opening event ‘Rivers of Life’ held at The Sill, the National Centre for Landscape Discovery, in a rural location far from the bright lights of the city. The furthest downstream was ‘Highway to Nowhere?’ a guided walk from North Shields to Tynemouth pier. In between we had events underground (in the Victoria Tunnel), close to the riverbank (at the historic Guildhall and at Seven Stories in the Ouseburn Valley), as well as a few events closer to the city centre.
The resources used for individual events varied greatly. The closing event, for instance, was a foot-stomping folk gig with professional sound and lighting; the events at Joseph Cowen Lifelong Learning Centre required no such stage equipment, but they did showcase the excellent research of graduate students at Newcastle University. In addition to running individual events, running a hub took some central organization – preparing promotion, arranging volunteers, supporting event participants, etc. – and we were fortunate to have the support of the Humanities Research Institute in keeping the whole show on track.
What did you aim to achieve with your hub events?
Given the range of events it was important for us to acknowledge different aims and intended impacts. In some cases, such as ‘Foodbank Histories’, which brought stories of foodbank users and workers to a stall in the city-centre indoor market, the organisers wanted to spark conversations about a pressing issue in Newcastle (and around the country), as well as raising awareness about the unique role of oral history in documenting the way we live now. In other cases, such as the events at the Joseph Cowen Lifelong Learning Centre, we hoped that the events we held this year could be the start of future collaborations. And in that sense, Being Human is not so much a one-off engagement, but an opportunity to build partnerships that take on a life of their own throughout the year.
Who were your target audiences? How did you go about reaching them?
We were particularly interested in reaching rural communities and young people, which is why we held our opening event outside of the city, and several events in partnership with Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books.
We worked closely with the University press office who helped draft targeted publicity for particular events. We also used local listings services. For us, it was important to take research into (and beyond) the city. Not only did this place events closer to different communities who might not be regular visitors to the University, but it also took advantage of the outstanding venues and places on our doorstep, from historic buildings and underground passageways to breath-taking landscapes and coastlines.
What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your events? Did you face any challenges?
Any festival hub relies on a team of event organisers and it’s important they feel a sense of autonomy over their events as well as a sense of support from the central team. I think we – as Newcastle’s central Being Human team – did a reasonably good job of striking a balance between leaving event organisers to get on with their brilliant work and pestering them about marketing information, risk assessments and feedback forms.
Inevitably, time and capacity were the main challenges for the central hub organisers and the event leads. Again, I think we all managed reasonably well, not least because Newcastle has an existing Humanities Research Institute with a wonderful network of academic and professional services colleagues who were able to coordinate the planning and delivery of events. But I wouldn’t underestimate how much time this kind of organisation can take, particularly in the two or three weeks leading up to the festival.
How useful did you find it to be part of the Being Human festival?
I don’t think we would have organised all the events we did if not for the festival, so that in itself shows the usefulness of the national organisation. The level of promotion that comes with the national umbrella – in our case including adverts on the metro system and the attendance of the festival director at our closing concert – is also a bonus. Just having the nice brochure gives an added sheen to local events and shows how the work going on at Newcastle is part of a broader patchwork of humanities research across the country.
Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future Being Human event organisers?
1. Look beyond the period of the festival when planning events. Are there longer-term links you might like to build that could benefit from an initial event as part of the festival?
2. Make the festival an opportunity to raise awareness of humanities research within your institution as well as in the local area. It’s amazing, though not entirely surprising, how often colleagues find out about ongoing research thanks to public-facing rather than university-only events.
3. Take extra care to support early career colleagues if they are organising events. Some of our most successful events were run by postgraduate researchers who did all the hard work themselves, but we made a point of checking in regularly to make sure no one felt out of their depth.