An ‘inspiration for innovation’: Being Human festival gets vote of confidence

Tuesday 22 September 2015

According to an independent evaluation, the School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) 2014 Being Human festival was distinctive, exciting, diverse and an inspiration for innovation in public engagement. Furthermore, by fostering collaboration between event partners it made a significant and visible contribution to the UK’s cultural life.

Written by Dr Ruth Townsley, the evaluation report based its findings on a survey of 1,254 festival attendees, 26 ‘vox pop’ respondents and 45 participating organisations. It confirmed that feedback on the nine-day UK-wide festival, which involved 163 public events dedicated to the humanities, highlighted ‘a strong desire for an annual national festival of the humanities’.

‘We were delighted by the outcome and the report on the first ever UK-wide festival of the humanities,’ says Professor Barry Smith, the festival’s director. ‘Being Human not only engaged the public but ignited the imagination of researchers who put on a huge range of creative events and declared how inspired and confident it made them feel about their own research.

Being Human 2014, which was led by SAS in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy, ran from 15 to 23 November in 2014, its inaugural year. It attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors who took took part in a range of humanities research celebrations. They included lectures, film screenings, experiments, dance and debates, organised by 161 participating institutions, 57 of which were registered as ‘lead participants’ for their festival events.

Using qualitative and quantitative data about people’s experiences and perceptions of this first festival of its kind, the evaluation considered the success of Being Human 2014 against its stated aims, which were to: inspire innovation in public engagement with leading research in the humanities; foster collaboration between higher education institutions, independent research organisations and cultural and community partners; make a significant and visible contribution to the national cultural life of the UK in November 2014; demonstrate the need and desire for an annual national festival of the humanities.

These aims were clearly met, says the report. Findings point to visitor comments that many of the activities changed their perception of humanities research, and that they were ‘mildly surprised’ academic events could be so ‘accessible, relaxed and welcoming’. Meanwhile, others said they felt, ‘inspired, informed and enthused by the content and delivery of events’ and therefore inclined to do further research and reading on the topic. More important, some of those surveyed confirmed the festival had ‘showcased the intrinsic value of humanities research for them personally, and for wider society,’ with 83 percent adding that events had matched their expectations exactly, very closely or closely.

For event leaders, Being Human 2014 not only demonstrated a high demand for humanities research-based events, it also helped renew and confirm public interest in their disciplines. Moreover they felt the festival events generally provided experience of doing public engagement work; created opportunities for innovation, experimentation and creativity; led to the creation and development of new and existing partnerships; promoted and validated humanities research.

One lead participant summed this up succinctly: ‘It showed us that there is a public appetite for intelligent discussion of the humanities. Not overview, not simplification, but genuine discussion.

Like all ambitious events, Being Human also had its fair share of criticism. Some were minor – venues were too cold, too hot, difficult to find – others less so. For example, the 2014 evaluation data indicate that although the profile of festival attendees by ethnic group broadly matches national statistics for white, mixed/multiple, and ‘other’ ethnic groups, proportionally it was less successful in reaching the population’s Asian and black groups. And gender-wise, it reached more women (53.6 percent), but significantly less men (35.2 percent) and disabled people (10 per cent) than might have been expected.

Preparations for Being Human 2015 (12–22 November) are well underway. Needless to say organisers have taken the report’s findings into consideration: a wider range of events will be on offer, the partnership now includes the Wellcome Trust working alongside SAS, the AHRC and the British Academy, and there is even more diversity this year.

The full independent Being Human 2014 report, including recommendations, is available to view here. For details of the 2015 event, see http://beinghumanfestival.org/.