Prepare to be astonished: Being Human, the UK’s first nationwide festival of the humanities, opens its doors

Prepare to be astonished: Being Human, the UK’s first nationwide festival of the humanities, opens its doors

Where can you find novelist, psychogeographer and ‘modern flâneur’ Will Self on the same bill as Al Murray, the nation’s most famous pub landlord, alongside some of the leading researchers from the humanities? Welcome, to Being Human, the UK’s first-ever national festival of the humanities, a nine-day event which will also feature an impressive roster of academic heavyweights including AI (artificial intelligence) expert Sir Nigel Shadbolt, poet Simon Armitage and renowned neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore.

Being Human 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. Launched at the beginning of the year by a small group of people motivated by a desire to share their passion and enthusiasm for the humanities, it has since expanded to reach the far corners of the UK – from Orkney to Truro, Belfast to Swansea, and Liverpool to Norwich.

Festival director, Professor Barry Smith of the School of Advanced Study said, ‘Being Human will show how our attempts to understand and interpret the human world can guide our thinking about science, society and culture, and shape our conception of ourselves. There is a huge amount of exciting work happening in the humanities right now, and we have invited universities across the country to hold their own events to highlight the vitality and interdisciplinary nature of humanities today.’

From 15 November, more than 50 universities will partner with some 120 cultural organisations to stage over 150 free-to-attend public events. They’ll be hosted in museums, in academic institutions and art galleries, in cultural and community centres around the country – and even in pubs and street markets. The aim is to offer a variety of experiences designed to make research accessible, and to demonstrate the role of the humanities in the cultural, intellectual, political and social life of the UK.

These range from a joke-generating computer program to an exploration of the impact of data overload on the human consciousness – as well as an ambitious effort bringing together archaeologists, artists, environmental scientists and the local community to investigate the eroding Orkney coastline. A diverse range of other topics will be covered, including the role of medical humanities; how food affects memory; and a fresh perspective on the life and work of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in the centenary of his birth.

The opening-day of the festival promises to be an exciting line-up, with numerous workshops, debates and master classes together offering an innovative look at what it is to be human in times of extraordinary challenges – like conflict, poverty and rapid technological change.

Some of the sessions, like Openness, Secrets and Lies, part of the Too Much Information event hosted by SAS at its Senate House headquarters, will ask controversial questions such as is the internet a space of freedom, or are we becoming ensnared in the digital world? Does the growing reach of online surveillance and censorship pose a threat to the future of democracy? Others will be more hands-on and include teaching the ‘un-musical’ to make music, a communal meal where the links between food and memory will be explored and creative writing workshops.

‘We’ve had an amazing time over the last year learning about the work that is going on in humanities departments across the country and exploring new ways to share this with the public,’ said festival curator, Dr Michael Eades. ‘Being Human taps into some of the most pressing social, political and existential questions currently affecting people’s lives. But it does so in ways that are imaginative, inspiring and, most of all, fun’.

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Notes for editors:

1. If you are a journalist and require further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London, +44 (0)20 7862 8653 / Images available on request.

For all other enquiries, please contact: Being Human Festival Team, School of Advanced Study, University of London, +44 (0)20 7862 8653 /

2. Being Human: A festival of the humanities 15–23 November 2014.
What does it mean to be human? How do we understand ourselves, our relationship to others and our place in nature? For centuries the humanities have addressed these questions. Artists, writers, philosophers, theologians and historians have considered who we are, how we live and what we value most. But are these long-standing questions changing in 2014? We are more connected than ever, yet we spend more time with smart phones and computers than face to face. The world is becoming smaller, yet the digital information we can access and store, even about ourselves, is vast and growing. Developments in science and technology are moving fast, challenging our understanding of the self and society. What sense can we make of these changes and what challenges do we face? We need the humanities more than ever to help us address these issues and provide the means to question, interpret and explain the human predicament.

The festival is held as part of the School of Advanced Study’s 20th anniversary celebrations and draws on the success of the 2013 King’s College Festival of the Humanities. Being Human will be the UK’s first national festival of the humanities. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, and universities, arts and cultural organisations across the UK, it will demonstrate 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.