Lost and found – the art of Being Human

Monday 2 October 2017

What does it mean to be human in 2017? The world we thought we knew suddenly seems unfamiliar, but what exactly have we lost? What might we have found in the process? We are about to find out as the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, unveils the programme for its annual Being Human celebration of the humanities.

This nine-day festival aims to highlight the richness and vitality of humanities research and the ways it addresses the big questions facing society. From the idea of a united Europe to the history of the British empire; from globalisation to ‘left behind’ communities and places; debates around Brexit and national sovereignty to environmental fears to imagined futures, the festival explores how research is helping us to navigate a new and unfamiliar world.

In a world dominated by Brexit and Trump, but which also marks historical anniversaries such as the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, Being Human demonstrates how humanities research can illuminate diverse histories, recover lost stories from the archives, breathe life into endangered languages, reclaim ‘lost’ novels, artworks and cultures, and preserve and illuminate our past for future generations.

Being Human takes place from 17 to 25 November (see the full UK programme of events online), and is run in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy. More than 300 have been lined up by some 90 institutions including universities, galleries, museums, publishers, community groups and education funding bodies. 

The programme includes: 

  • Sleep: lost and found: drawing on research into Tudor England and the ‘golden age of sleep’, experts from the University of Manchester and the Children’s Sleep charity will dispense lessons in how to get a good night’s rest 
  • Sovereignties of Birmingham: it was one of the most searched words on Google last year, but what exactly is sovereignty? Is it taking back control? Is it legitimacy? How does it shape our local and national history, past, present and future? This topical notion will be explored through the lens of Birmingham, the city where Theresa May gave her 2016 Brexit speech in support of reclaiming sovereignty back from the EU
  • British wrestling: history and resurgence: De Montfort University brings this highly entertaining sport into the world of academia by charting the fall and rise of this almost theatrical genre through a collection of artistic encounters – a training workshop, a discussion an two wrestling matches
  • Finding through feeling: explores the plight of mothers who had to give up their children, and in the very place where it happened, the evocative Foundling Museum (patron the composer Handel, and it’s also the location for the press launch of Being Human on 1 November).
  • The University of Chester’s Sensing the past: with its prehistoric food tasting and interactive exploration of how past peoples smelled, touched, handled, saw and tasted their environment 
  • In east London, there will be The great Yiddish parade: organised by Queen Mary, University of London, it is a lively re-enactment of a demonstration by Jewish immigrant workers in Victorian Whitechapel. Join a band of klezmer musicians and singers performing newly discovered Yiddish protest songs in their original setting, and find out about the area's forgotten heritage of protest in poetry and song

‘Now in our fourth year, we are delighted to announce that the Being Human Festival returns in 2017 with a programme showcasing the best and most innovative humanities research around the country,’ said Professor Sarah Churchwell, the festival’s director.

‘Well over 300 events will be taking place across the entire United Kingdom, all free, innovative, exciting encounters with how we think about the human world, in all its forms. Now more than ever we need the humanities, to understand the complexities of global problems, but also to celebrate our undeniable achievements. The relevance of humanities research has never been clearer, as our programme shows—but we also maintain that serious thinking can be seriously fun, and the programme shows that, too.’

Being Human is already making an impact. Britain's first black theatre manager, Ira Aldridge, has just been commemorated with a blue plaque at the site of the theatre he ran in Coventry more than a hundred years ago. It wouldn’t have happened without the festival, which provided seed funding for the University of Warwick’s ‘Against prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828’ event (see Being Human helps earn recognition for historic UK black cultural icon). 

And now the festival has become truly international with a series of events in Melbourne, Singapore, Rome and Paris going way beyond the official UK dates of 17–25 November.

Alun Evans, chief executive of the British Academy, said: ‘Humanities subjects put the whole of human experience in context. That is what the British Academy exists to do. The humanities help us to understand everything from how individuals behave to how nations are governed; how economies operate; and how cultures evolve. By showcasing a wonderfully diverse range of research, Being Human illustrates this perfectly. I would urge anyone who wants to understand more – whether about the big issues or today or the timeless aspects of culture and society – to get to as many events as possible.’

‘Being Human is quickly becoming an unmissable part of the festival landscape,’ said Professor Andrew Thompson, the AHRC’s chief executive. ‘The 300 events lined up for this year are made up of talks, performances and interactive activities. They offer a true reflection of the breadth of humanities research whilst highlighting a common thread; the humanities are integral to understanding the nature of the world around us.’

Find out more about the festival at https://beinghumanfestival.org/ and follow the latest news on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest. 


Notes to Editors: 

  1. For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653 / Maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk.
  2. Being Human: a festival of the humanities 17–25 November 2017
    Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, Being Human is a national forum for public engagement with humanities research. The festival will highlight the ways in which the humanities can inspire and enrich our everyday lives. 
  3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2015-16, SAS: welcomed 786 research fellows and associates; held 2,007 research dissemination events; received 24.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 194,145 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities: Being Human. Find out more at http://www.sas.ac.uk or 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. www.ahrc.ac.uk. Follow the AHRC on Twitter at twitter.com/ahrcpress and Facebook: facebook.com/artsandhumanitiesresearchcouncil/ 
  5. The British Academy for the humanities and social sciences. Established by Royal Charter in 1902. Its purpose is to inspire and support high achievement in the humanities and social sciences throughout the UK and internationally, and to promote their public value. For more information, please visit www.britishacademy.ac.uk. Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news.