Over the past four years I have worked on the Being Human festival of the humanities. Established in
2014, Being Human was created to offer a national platform for researchers in the humanities to engage with non-academic audiences, and to develop a national network for sharing ideas and best practice in humanities public engagement.
From the start, the festival has drawn together three of the national coordinating bodies dedicated to supporting and promoting humanities research – namely the School of Advanced Study, University of London (funded by HEFCE to promote and facilitate research in the humanities), alongside the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.
Every year we allocate small grants to support universities and other research organisations to run festival activities, on the understanding that these will be innovative and creative humanities public engagement projects that would not be fully funded by other sources.
As we ramp up for our fourth festival, it seems like a good time to share some thoughts on what we’ve learnt about the place of the humanities in the public engagement landscape of the UK.
Public service (and beyond)
Let’s start with the positive. The good news is that researchers in the humanities are very much up for public engagement. The idea that sharing knowledge with a non-academic audience is something that goes with the job is, I would say, a notion broadly shared by academics in this field, as underlined by the recent Factors Affecting Public Engagement by Researchers report.
Going beyond ‘duty’, there is in fact a real energy and enthusiasm for public engagement within the humanities. Amongst Early Career researchers particularly (but by no means exclusively), we have found a huge appetite for engaging with new audiences and gaining new perspectives on research.
This energy can be seen beyond Being Human. Excellent work is being done, for example, by the AHRC/ESRC Connected Communities programme, which specialises in co-produced research rooted in community engagement, and by the more comms-focussed AHRC/Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers initiative, which is developing a new wave of public intellectuals in the arts and humanities. Coming up from the grassroots, with an advocacy slant, we also find initiatives such as 4Humanities and the Twitter account WeTheHums.
In their own ways these initiatives develop a long established public intellectual/media academic tradition in the humanities. This tradition is of course valuable in itself, but can create an impression that public engagement is reserved for a favoured few ‘broadcast ready’ researchers. Perceptions of elitism (both within and beyond the academy) can be the result.
Challenges in the humanities
It’s fair to say have encountered a few challenges over the past four years. Perhaps most notably, we’ve learnt that the national public engagement infrastructure supporting humanities researchers is at a different stage of development to that in the sciences – which is much further towards being established and is widely considered essential.
Science Communication is a ‘thing’, and science communication and engagement is well on a way to becoming an established career pathway for those who want to do that thing. The infrastructure is there and it is being refined all the time. This hasn’t yet developed in quite the same way in the humanities.
One reason for this is money. There is a still a significant funding gap when it comes to public engagement activity in the humanities, with funders in this area not setting aside dedicated pots in the way that, say, the Wellcome Trust does for science and medicine. Interdisciplinary collaboration offers some other opportunities – notably via science/medical humanities projects or via collaboration with visual and performing arts, which might open up access Arts Council funds. These pathways can be hugely fruitful, of course, but it still feels like there is a lack of resource for public engagement activity rooted, at core, in humanities research.
Being Human has taken off as a festival to the extent that it has primarily because it addresses a need and, to a certain extent, plugs a gap in the public engagement landscape. A coordinating, profile-raising platform which also offers some financial support turned out to be even more necessary than we’d thought.
Thoughts for the future
The events of 2016 obviously gave us plenty to think about. The Brexit campaign and ‘leave’ vote in June saw a national outpouring of hostility towards ‘experts’. Looking to the USA, the alarm caused by the election of Trump was compounded in the first weeks of the presidency by rumours of an imminent assault on both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.
Clearly the need to build public understanding of and engagement with humanities research is pressing. Public engagement, rather than ‘public service broadcast’, is I think the best way to achieve this, and I hope that the Being Human festival has made a contribution towards building up some infrastructure to support this activity.
No single initiative is enough, however. To go further, a practical future step might be for major funders in the humanities, including both public bodies and major foundations and trusts, to establish a national forum for public engagement in the humanities along the lines of the National Forum for Public Engagement in STEM, established in 2014. Such a network (not a merger) might allow for greater consensus around the need for direct funding to support public engagement activity in the humanities, and on the priorities that should drive it forward.
This might lead to greater available funds to support humanities engagement per se, rather than as a bolt on to other activity. Such funding is needed, I think, to do what is vital: to create a genuine public dialogue fostering deeper understanding of the humanities, their value, and their place at the heart of our shared human world.