Sarah Churchwell on Being Human

Professor Sarah Churchwell is the Being Human Festival Director and the Chair in the Public Understanding of the Humanities in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

Q&A by Sara Wills

Thanks for taking time out of your busy role to talk to ARTiculation, Sarah. Can you tell us about the Being Human Festival - what is it?

The Being Human festival is the first and only national festival of the humanities in the UK. Founded in 2014, the festival aims to demonstrate the breadth, diversity and vitality of the humanities, and that research in the humanities is vital for the cultural, intellectual, political and social life. It’s a successful large-scale, national public engagement festival taking academic research out into all corners of the community providing refreshing new perspectives on research. It’s supported by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy - three organisations that are dedicated to the promotion of research in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Sounds great, so what kind of humanities research is featured?

We use a broad definition of the humanities, which encompasses the subject areas traditionally associated with the study of the human world - Art History, Archaeology, Classics, Cultural Studies, History, Film, Languages, Literature, Musicology, Philosophy, Theatre Studies, Theology, etc. Art practice would not typically fall under this definition but projects from practitioners have been included in the festival before if they have a strong humanities research component and offer a good fit with the festival’s objectives. Similarly, interdisciplinary projects with artists, social scientists and scientists are very welcome providing they have a strong humanities base. Our definition of a ‘humanities researcher’ is also broad, and encompasses curators, librarians and archivists as well as university based academic staff and practitioners.

Why did you think the festival is needed and what does Being Human aim to do?

We need to get the public more cognisant of the important role played by the humanities in our lives. The festival engages the public in critical and creative thinking about "being human" and the role of the humanities at a time when it is more important than ever to cultivate the skills, aptitudes and moral imagination that enable us to live with complexity and difference. Initiating a unique and much-needed public forum for debate and activity, the festival demonstrates that the humanities should not sit in splendid isolation from other forms of knowledge but should inform the public and the shape of our society. It can and should, for example, inform public policy, an arena in which we need to ask moral questions about how best to meet people's needs. And it can and should have a huge social and economic impact, helping to determine how workplaces are best organised, how companies can prosper and also support cities to thrive.

What is particular about the public engagement of Being Human?

All of the events in our programme offer some form of public engagement with humanities research. Simply put, this means that they take specialist knowledge in the humanities and share it in ways that have been specifically designed to be appealing and engaging for a non-specialist audience. Activities are shaped to an audience’s needs, interests and enthusiasms. At their best, such activities are mutually beneficial both for researchers and for the public - establishing a 'two-way street' model of engagement.

Where will Being Human go next?

Well... to Australia! Building on the success of previous years, the 2018 festival aims to deliver not only a high profile, networked, and cohesive series of events across the UK, but also to launch internationally for the first time. We’re delighted to be forming a partnership with the University of Melbourne and hope to also work with other universities and institutions in their efforts to galvanise greater understanding of the humanities and provide a locus around which to coordinate events celebrating the vitality, interdisciplinarity and social relevance of humanities research.

The theme of the 2018 Being Human Festival is Origins and Endings and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne is really excited about becoming the first Australian international hub of the Festival. Work is underway on a group of events that will coincide with the UK Festival between 15 and 24 November which will be promoted later in the year.