Reflections on Independence: The Bloomsbury Festival at UCL

This Autumn term at UCL Culture we’ve been exploring what makes us human — from the idea of death and legacy, to our unique relationship with animals. We’ve discussed the controversial history of eugenics at UCL and run events celebrating superstition, and gender. We’ve found creative inspiration in our catalogues and collections, and held a festival of independence and how to live well.

In this blog post Will Richard, Visitor Services Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Bloomsbury Festival Coordinator, tells us of his involvement with the popular London festival and why opportunities to share UCL’s research with the public are so important to us.

On Saturday 21 October UCL Culture welcomed over 5,000 adults and families from the local community to “Being Independent: the Science and Art of Living Well” as part of the Bloomsbury Festival 2017. Visitors to UCL’s main campus were treated to a diverse programme combining art, performance, pioneering ideas and cutting-edge science… with some excellent street food on the side.

“…a desire to share my research with the wider public.”
— Senior Research Associate, UCL Institute of Education

As the centre-piece of the day, UCL Culture funded and co-produced 15 experiential exhibitions, workshops and events all inspired by current research at UCL. We worked with colleagues from Professors to PhD students, collaborating to create a programme that encapsulated and communicated the breadth and impact of UCL’s work. The benefit to the public here is clear: to gain an insight into world-leading research at a world-leading university. But festivals like this are impossible without the goodwill and hard work of the academic community. So, why do so many researchers get involved?

It gives [me] another chance to improve my public engagement skills including: explaining my PhD project, public speaking and adjusting my work to different age groups.”
 — PhD Student, Dept. of Chemical Engineering

Universities don’t just emit knowledge. Learning can happen in more than one direction and new ideas often come from having new conversations. By opening the doors UCL Culture facilitated exchanges that might never have happened otherwise. I know of numerous discussions that took place in October that are now inspiring new areas of enquiry: how do children respond in virtual reality environments? How do artists and scientists work most effectively together? And how much care do we really take online?

Many people were not familiar with the security and privacy risks associated with personal digital stories. This is something we are looking at in more detail in our research.”
— Senior Research Associate, UCL Institute of Education

There have undoubtedly been other, harder to measure, outcomes too. The Festival attracts “a varied and interested crowd of all ages”that come together to enjoy the day. How many of them will have left thinking of UCL, not as an austere and distant institution but as an exciting and culturally engaged part of the Bloomsbury community? Hard to quantify but, as many more people came to UCL’s Hub this year than last, barriers must be breaking down. And what of the experiences of those who came? How many people tried something new or thought in a way they never had before? And was it VR, art therapy, folk dance or the sub molecular processes of photosynthesis that prompted it?

“…as a researcher and as an activist…”
— PhD Student, Dept. of Computer Science

Tangible connections were undoubtedly made. As part of the programme, the Institute of Education highlighted teaching projects at three primary schools and the Baale Mane orphanage in Bengaluru, India. A visitor, who participated in the event, happens to work for a charity that does similar work in the same area. They are now planning to collaborate to reach more children than either could independently. Although you can’t always plan for these chance encounters this is exactly the kind of atmosphere that UCL Culture tries to create. As our manifesto states: “We’re here to help spark these creative connections. To set the scene and make the time and space. To bring the different parts and players together. To create the stories, events and interventions that light a fuse and fan the flames.”

We’d like to thank everyone who came to the festival and made it such a success this year. If you missed out, keep an eye on our events page for details of our diverse programme of talks, exhibitions, performances and family activities that take place throughout the year.