Nearly eight years ago, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime. In the summer of 2013, discussions started to happen at the School of Advanced Study, University of London about the idea of starting a national festival of the humanities. The opportunity that came my way was this: did I want to be the person who helped make the national humanities festival happen? Did I want to be its manager and curator? At that time, we didn’t have a name for it, but this was the start of my involvement in the Being Human festival of the humanities. Since that time, the festival has grown to become a major national project, with hundreds of events across the country every year. It has grown into a festival with its own distinct identity: a very human humanities festival, rooted in the everyday lives of communities across the UK. As I move on from Being Human to a new role—as head of Civic Engagement at Goldsmiths, University of London—I wanted to reflect a little bit on what I think we have achieved with Being Human over the years.

The vision

Way back in 2014, just before the very first Being Human festival, I wrote a guest blog for the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement about what we were hoping to achieve. On the one hand, I wrote that we wanted it to ‘provide a national snapshot of the inspiring work taking place across disciplinary boundaries within the humanities’. On the other, I wrote that we wanted the festival to become a rallying point for a new community: ‘a new national forum through which scholars, writers, readers and humanities ‘geeks’ could share stories and ideas, and get a sense of public engagement activities happening across the country…’ . I rounded off that blog, in 2014, by saying that: ‘We hope that we have planted the seed of something that might grow in coming years to become an essential part of the public engagement landscape. We want it to become a space of inspiration, exchange and innovation for those committed to sharing the wealth embedded in the humanities.’ 

Changing worlds

A lot has changed in the world since I wrote those words. The festival has taken place under three Prime Ministers in the UK and three US Presidents. The Scottish and Brexit Referendums have come and gone and, of course, an unprecedented international crisis has emerged in the form of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, Being Human festival is still here, still growing, and still going strong - having successfully adapted even to the severe challenge of delivering a festival under lockdown conditions in 2020. Year on year, the festival has delivered programmes of activities which, consistently, have amazed me with their creativity, energy and ingenuity. Increasingly, these are creative interventions rooted in place, which link contemporary research to the histories and identities of a particular city, town or region. From projects exploring the history and folklore of the Orkney Islands, to sensory explorations of the sights, sounds and smells of the Black Country, to meditations on the poetry of the Swansea Coast, Dundee’s literary heritage or Nottingham’s history as a city of ‘Heroes and Villains’. There are too many examples to name individually. Through working on this national project, I’ve witnessed the wealth of ideas, the wealth of research, the huge numbers of fascinating collections and archives, small museums and libraries and the huge numbers of people who work to keep these things alive, through their commitment and enthusiasm. It’s been a privilege to have this insight, and to work with these people. 

Ideas, creativity and innovation

Looking back on that early blog, I think Being Human has achieved that early ambition to become ‘an essential part of the public engagement landscape [....] a space of inspiration, exchange and innovation’. It has done so in a very distinct and special way, as the festival has evolved into the unique national event that it is. Every festival has been different, but each one has been special. Each one has presented a different ‘national snapshot’ of ideas, creativity, innovation; a different ‘national snapshot’ of life in the UK itself. This year’s theme is ‘Renewal’. As I move on to a new chapter with my new job, I’ll also be watching the festival evolve and renew as someone new comes in - along with a new set of events and national organisers across the UK in 2021. There are so many exciting plans already in progress for the festival that 2021 is already shaping up to be one of the strongest years yet. I’m sad that I won’t be rushing around the country helping to make things happen this time around, but at the same time I’m immensely looking forward to attending, and cheering on, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities.