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Hope and fear in 2016

By Michael Eades | Being Human festival curator

Our theme for the 2016 Being Human festival is ‘hope and fear’. We couldn’t have known how well chosen it would be. This has been a year in which fears around everything from Brexit, global terrorism, and the rise of political extremism across the world seem to have snapped into sharper focus. There’s no shortage of fear.

At the same time however, as our programme demonstrates, there is also no shortage of hope. People have come forward with context, nuance, challenges and alternatives to the narratives of fear outlined above. They have provided reminders that hope and fear always go together: that problems can be met with creative solutions and that crises often prompt leaps of imagination, compassion and creativity.

This year we have more than 250 events across 45 towns and cities, including 7 festival hubs. With a programme on this scale it can be difficult to identify common themes. However five key strands stand out.

Journeys of hope and fear

This theme borrows a title from a programme of activity coordinated by our University of Leeds festival hub. It perfectly captures a whole strand of events exploring the hopeful, and sometimes desperate, journeys people take to cross continents and boundaries.

In Sussex, Moving stories: representing the refugee crisis sees academics and actors exploring the human stories behind forced migrations. In Down and out in Paris and London we have researchers working with refugees unable to make the channel crossing, and co-producing materials for a London exhibition.

There are more hopeful journeys, too. At our hub at the University of Liverpool, Women explorers: crossing cultures will investigate the legacy of Mary Kingsley and other early female explorers – pioneers in crossing continents and redefining gender roles.

Science, technology and the future

From climate change to the driverless cars and robots to revolutionary utopias, events across our programme demonstrate there is nothing more likely to inspire both hope and fear than looking toward the future and thinking what comes next.

The 150th anniversary of H G Wells’ birth will be marked by a series of events at our University of Dundee hub, and by activities in Portsmouth. In a highlight event – H G Wells at 150: Martian autopsy – forensic scientist Professor Sue Black, will conduct a historically-minded mock-autopsy on a Wellsian alien to explore how the literary imagination has shaped scientific endeavour.

In Sunderland, Sex, love and robots offers an adults-only delve in to how new technologies, particularly robots, might impact on human love and relationships. Meanwhile, in Bristol We, robots question why robots are frequently made to look like teenage girls, yet they are less often designed by them.

Bringing many of these ideas together is a museum late in Oxford, featuring interactive activities at the Museum for the History of Science. Don’t Panic! Promises and threats of science and technology will use film, performance and the museum’s collections, to explore the promises and threats of science and technology.

Sickness and health

Across the UK humanities researchers – often in collaboration with artists and scientists – are responding to issues of life, death and everything in between. For example, there is Cardiff’s Coma notes: exploring coma, consciousness and conscience, and in Leeds and Huddersfield events such as Imagining dementia and ‘Lost in memories’: dementia and the act of caring, will explore dementia and memory loss through art and literature.

Continuing the literary theme, Roald Dahl’s marvellous medicine: hope conquers fear, one of the events coordinated by the University of Liverpool’s festival hub, has Professor Tom Solomon scrutinising Roald Dahl’s significant but little-acknowledged contribution to medical science.

Conflict and peace

Fundamentally human, and all-too topical, this theme reflects the significant number of programme events that focus on contemporary and historic conflicts, their legacies and impacts on the human lives caught up in them.

In London, Sound and Fury: listening to the second world war delves into the British Library's Sound Archives to bring to bring to light previously unheard recordings of Wartime Britain. Composer Aleks Kolkowski and researchers from the University of Nottingham, University of Amsterdam and from the British Library itself will bring these ghostly recordings to life with two London installations.

Further north, Twenty years on: Manchester and the IRA Bomb, organised by the University of Salford, looks at the legacy of the largest bomb detonated in Britain since the Second World War.

Being Human’s first ever event outside the UK, A moveable feast: Being Human in Paris, considers the legacy of a more recent act of terror. One year on from the ‘Bataclan’ attacks in Paris, Professor Sarah Churchwell will lead a roundtable considering the emergence of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as a symbol of defiance in the face of terror.

Hidden spaces, hidden voices

Being Human has always provided access to places and ideas that are not normally publically accessible. This year, people have not only opened up archives and usually closed spaces, but in doing so have found opportunities to unearth overlooked and challenging voices.

An installation in the North Tower of Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge opens up a vertiginous space not normally accessible to the public to explore human fears and fascinations around Scaling the heights. In Coventry (Against prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828) academics from the University of Warwick will unearth the story and legacy of Ira Aldridge, who ran a Coventry theatre at a time when slavery was still legal in Britain’s colonies.

Memories of Partition, organised by St Andrew’s University, reveals the traumatic (and international) legacy of the 1947 India/Pakistan partition. An exhibition at Edinburgh’s Punjabi Junction café and community centre will be accompanied by interactive performances based on archival records and oral history interviews.  Together they promise to challenge our understanding of the entwined histories of India, Pakistan and Britain.

Meanwhile in London, The National Archives and the Metropolitan Archives invites young people (16–25) to Queer and the State to delve into previously closed secret police and government files to explore LGBTQ+ experiences past and present.

Take your own journey

We selected these themes because they reflect the binding concerns of our programme. It is one which encompasses both hope and fear, as explored by creative, enquiring minds across the disciplines, the country, and indeed the world. We think the themes provide a way in to a packed and hugely varied programme, but ultimately that programme is there for you to explore. We hope you enjoy doing so, and taking your own ‘journeys of hope and fear’ with us during Being Human 2016.

Dr Michael Eades is cultural contexts research fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He joined SAS in 2013 to coordinate programming and engagement with the Bloomsbury Festival, funded by a Cultural Engagement Pilot Scheme award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). He was principal investigator on the AHRC-funded project ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia’, and currently curates the Being Human festival of the humanities. Led by SAS and supported by the AHRC and the British Academy, this is the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, and aims to inspire public engagement with research in this area.