Being Human and the British Academy

by Dr Michael Eades

2 Nov 2017

Recently I was delighted to attend a reception at the British Academy in honour of their new President, Professor Sir David Cannadine. Taking to the lectern to make his first speech as President, Professor Cannadine said something that resonated with me: ‘The sciences, medicine and technology may change the world’, he said, ‘but without the humanities and social sciences, we cannot hope to understand the world or come to terms with those changes’.

Over the past four years I’ve been working on a project that has been trying to communicate almost exactly this message.

Since 2014 I’ve had the immense privilege of working on the Being Human festival of the humanities. This is a festival that came into being to fill a curious gap in the national landscape. There were festivals of art and literature, even festivals dedicated to philosophy. Certainly there were plenty of science festivals. But until that point there was no national festival dedicated to the humanities, and to sharing cutting edge research in this area with the general public. We established Being Human to do precisely that.

One of the things that makes Being Human different from many other festivals is that it doesn’t rely on celebrity speakers to make an impact. Instead it allows researchers in the humanities at places of learning across the country the freedom to create their own activities - forging partnerships and collaborations with galleries, schools, museums, performers and artists and presenting activities that are inclusive, accessible and fun. It’s a festival driven by the energy of enthusiasts and experts across the country (and, increasingly, beyond).

The support of the British Academy has been crucial to making this work. Since 2014 we have coordinated the festival from the School of Advanced Study, University of London. But we have done so by in close partnership with both the Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Both of these partners have been pivotal in making the festival financially viable, and in allowing us to allocate small-seed fund grants available to fund festival activities. Perhaps more importantly though they have also been vital in allowing us to reach and to work with a genuine humanities community.

Every year our programme features researchers whose work has been directly supported by the British Academy. Our 2017 ‘Lost and Found’ festival, for example, features an event from British Academy Mid-career Fellow Dr Sasha Handley (University of Manchester) exploring what the Early Modern ‘golden age of sleep’ can tell us about the importance of getting a good night’s rest in the 21st century. We are also delighted to feature an activity organised by Dr Nadia Valman (Queen Mary, University of London), another former recipient of a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, who is recreating a ‘Great Yiddish Parade’, a Jewish protest march informed by her research into the literature and culture of London’s East End.

The British Academy’s rostrum of Fellows have also played a pivotal role in the festival over the years, from Professor Roger Kain, who helped to found the festival, to Baroness Onora O’Neill, who helped us to launch the first programme in 2014, to Professor Roberta Gilchrist, who spearheaded a whole programme of events at the University of Reading in 2016. 

This year we worked closely with the British School at Rome, themselves supported by the British Academy, on one of our first ever international Being Human events – exploring how archaeologists, classicists, artists and others across the globe are leading the fight to preserve heritage endangered by war, terrorism, and the illegal trade in antiquities. Back in London, the Academy is organising its own event, too – in the form of a special ‘late’ event tying in with Dr Mary-Ann Constantine’s forthcoming book Miracles and Murders: an introductory anthology of Breton ballads. This event will see Carlton House Terrace host an evening of Breton folk dancing – which may very well be a first!

The overlaps between research supported by the British Academy and the Being Human festival programme are huge. Every year we draw upon a wellspring of talent and enthusiasm nurtured by the Academy and by our other festival partners. Without this incredible pool of talent, the festival wouldn’t exist, and neither would humanities research as we know it. This is the humanities community at the heart of the festival, and the community at the forefront of helping us to understand what it means to be human. 

As part of the Being Human Festival, the British Academy is holding a free event on 20 November 2017 exploring Breton culture, with music and dancing. 

The Being Human festival runs from 17 to 25 November 2017 at venues across the UK and beyond. The festival is led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. The festival celebrates research in the humanities and the many ways it enriches our shared human world and shapes our everyday lives. Details of the festival and the full programme of events can be found at You can follow the festival on Twitter @BeingHumanfest #beinghuman17 

Dr Michael Eades is Public Engagement Manager and Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. He helped establish the Being Human festival of the humanities in 2014 and has been the festival’s manager and principal curator since then. He joined SAS in 2013 to coordinate cultural programming for the School, funded by an AHRC Cultural Engagement Pilot Scheme award. He was then principal investigator on another AHRC-funded project, Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia.


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