Public enthusiasm for engaging the insights that arts and humanities researchers can bring to contemporary matters of concern is as high as ever. As a small band of University of Birmingham historians recently discovered when they took part in this year’s Being Human Festival.
Five Birmingham academics from the School of History and Cultures (SHaC) and beyond, took part in SHaC organised events as part of this year’s Being Human Festival. Grabbing the opportunity to take their research outside the academy, and in collaboration with creative practitioners from the wider city, present their work to an audience of interested and engaged non-specialists drawn from the wider community. Organised by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, with support from the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Being Human is the UK’s national festival of the humanities.
Teaming up with Digbeth based video art gallery and curators Vivid Projects, and the REPEATOR Artist’s Collective, Chris Moores the Director of the Centre for Modern British Studies, presented an afternoon of discussion and debate about activism in 1980s Birmingham.
The session focused upon the then ground-breaking, campaigning videos produced by the Trade Union Resources Centre (a socialist video production collective and one of Vivid’s predecessor organisations), Rights Wot Rights presented the films as part of Birmingham’s activist history, as material objects and as potential jumping off points for artistic and political practice today. Newly collated and in the process of being digitalised and archived with the aid of a Heritage Lottery Grant the Resource Centre’s films provide a unique visual snapshot of an important moment in the development of activism in the West Midlands.
Organised alongside workshop lines around twenty people drawn from a wide cross section of the community participated in the event. Some participants were intensely involved in arts and activism in 1980s Birmingham, whilst numerous others had not even been born during the period, and came to the subject material and the scene from which it emerged anew.
In addition to the historic videos and discussion of their content and context a real highlight of the session was seeing an array of new art works produced by the REPEATOR Collective in response to the Resource Centre archive.
Based upon the research into the cultural history of extinction that underpins her forthcoming book, Sadiah Qureshi presented a lunchtime talk in the Lapworth Museum’s learning centre. Developed in partnership with curatorial staff at the recently refurbished, Art Fund Museum of the Year nominated, museum; the event explained how popular and scientific ideas about the nature of extinction have evolved throughout the modern period.
Highly interactive in nature, with the opportunity to touch and feel plaster casts of long insects and a mammoth’s tooth, as well as the chance to explain which extinct creature you’d most like to bring back to life and why, the event was incredibly well received by those in attendance. Filling the venue to capacity, the audience represented a broad cross section of the local community, with many attendees drawn from the usual audience for the Lapworth’s own public lecture series, who might not otherwise have attended a culturally focused talk by a historian. In the spirit of the Being Human Festival, their post event feedback indicates that the audience really appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the evolution of the concept of extinction from arts rather than a science perspective.
Must Bankers be Bad? Brought together Tom Cutterham a Lecturer in US History with an interest in finance and the early United States, with Emma Barrett who studies social networks and the deregulation of finance in 1980s Britain, and Yan Huo a Research Fellow at Birmingham Business School for a roundtable discussion about finance and morality.
Held in the intimate, studio style setting of the Birmingham Impact Hub located in Digbeth just outside the city centre, the event offered the audience the chance to enter into a dialogue with the presenters. This aspect of the event was much appreciated by those in attendance, offering as it did the chance for them to share their own thoughts, perspectives and ethical values. Some of those in attendance had experience of working in financial services, whilst others were seasoned campaigners against what they consider the excesses of the current economic system. Factors that made for a lively, but always respectful, discussion.
In keeping with the spirit of the Being Human Festival, the attendees fed back that they really appreciated, and felt that they had benefited from the opportunity to listen, and discuss issues around finance and morality with experts from the University of Birmingham in a friendly and informal environment.