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Being Human 2019: highlights from across the UK

As we start to gear up for Being Human 2020 here’s a quick recap on last year’s festival, which took place 14 – 23 November 2019.

Over 250 free events, 20,000 audience numbers, 50 towns and cities, 200 community and cultural partners, and hundreds of researchers from 71 universities and research organisations came together for 2019’s Being Human festival - the country’s biggest and only national celebration of the humanities. The festival is all about bringing the latest research in subjects including history, literature, languages, archaeology, philosophy and classics to the widest possible public audience. The 2019 programme was themed around ‘Discoveries and Secrets’ and a whole host of creative and engaging free public events cast light on important untold stories, hidden histories and exciting discoveries.

Diversifying the humanities

In 2019 we previewed the festival with an event addressing the lack of ethnic diversity in the arts and humanities. In partnership with Arts Emergency, ‘Are the Humanities for Us?’ brought together a range of diverse voices to explore and address the barriers and obstacles that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds may encounter when considering studies or careers in the arts and humanities. Panellists and Arts Emergency young mentees discussed decolonising the curriculum, the roots of structural inequality and the impact of not seeing yourself represented in the academy, alongside much more.

Highlights from across the UK

Being Human is a truly national festival and events took place in every corner of the UK all the way from Orkney to Margate. Events and activities are designed to make research fun, engaging and relevant, and in 2019 the programme included ‘uncomfortable’ walking tours, a magic lantern screening, comedy shows, 18th-century dancing, a willow lantern parade, a spectacular light and projection show, planting sessions, robot programming, arcade-game playing and much more! Here are just a few regional highlights... Starting in Wales, Swansea's festival hub line-up was headlined with a family fun extravaganza at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, inspired by secrets of The Mary Rose ship and discoveries made about the origins of the ship’s crew. Meanwhile, in Cardiff, New Generation Thinker Dr Emily Cock's 'Facing History' workshop invited people to create a series of imaginative portraits based on physical descriptions of runaway convicts sent from Britain to Australia in the 1800s - take a look at some of the portraits here! In Scotland, hundreds of audience members came along to the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh to learn of the death-defying Alice Thornton, in a performance based on her handwritten notebooks and two recently discovered manuscripts. In Dundee, as part of their 'Aquatic City' themed programme, the University of Dundee popped up in the Wellgate shopping centre, with a range of DIY creative workshops inspired by the 'Poet's Box' shops in which Dundonians once performed and printed their latest creations. In the festival's most northerly event, researchers and locals came together at Orkney Library to help weave life back into Orkney tweed. In Northern Ireland, participants got together at the Ulster Museum in Belfast to hand-stitch a patchwork map of the city and reflect on the city’s history and heritage.

I recently moved to Belfast and I've struggled with finding my place in the Belfast community. But this event has helped me navigate these feelings and these struggles in a positive and productive way that will definitely stay with me.

At Kelham Island Museum, located in one of Sheffield’s oldest industrial districts, The University of Sheffield took up residency with a programme of events including an immersive experience capturing all the sights, sounds and tastes of a royal 17th-century banquet, complete with theatrical entertainment. In the Midlands, researchers from the University of Wolverhampton took participants on a multi-sensory tour across the Black Country - by foot, coach and canal boat! The day-long event featured a ‘smell experiment’, poetry-readings, 'linguistic landscaping' and sound recordings all bringing to life the overlooked histories, literature and landscapes of this area steeped in industrial heritage.

At London's iconic queer venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, drag queen Timerblina performed a history of queer dating ads, spanning the 1900s to the dawn of internet dating with all material sourced from The National Archives and the Bishopsgate Institute. Visitors also had the chance to go behind the scenes at the BT Archives in Holborn, to discover a range of work and research by students on Central Saint Martin’s Graphic Communication Design course. Creative interpretations of the archival material brought to life forgotten stories of the world’s oldest communications company. And finally, in the East researchers from Queen Mary University of London took to the coast, to the oldest archaeological site in northern Europe - Happisburgh beach, where in 2013 the earliest known footprints in Europe were discovered. As part of the festivities researchers hosted an evening talk and family-friendly day of activities exploring our distant past through the discoveries that have been made on the beach. Live discoveries were even made as a rhino tooth brought in by a local collector was identified!

To hear leaders in their fields explaining so clearly the importance of local discoveries was wonderful.

'On the Beach' with Queen Mary University of London

Thank you!

A huge thank you to everyone who shared their research, organised or hosted an event or came along to discover something new – we hope to see you at this year’s festival! For those keen to know more, a full evaluation of the 2019 festival will be available later in the year.