Northern Lights: Thank you Sheffield for embracing the world of our incredible festival

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

Sheffield is a city of festivals and the last two months have seen a range of events blossom across the city – for the University of Sheffield the two biggies were of course Festival of the Mind and then less than four days later Off the Shelf. But during that long, intensive six week period we also saw other remarkable specialist events open in our fair city. Music and film from the fantastic Sensoria, the wonderful Spirit of Africa weekend at the Crucible, Tim Etchell’s remarkable Strong Language at Site Gallery and Hope Works incredible Unbound weekend to name but a few.

Last weekend the newly inaugurated Sheffield Modern opened its doors with a unique event in the Paternoster in the Arts Tower with over 800 keen architecture fans exploring the city’s modernist heritage over the final October weekend.

The festivals all in their own unique way showcase the city that we live and work in and creativity, passion and an ability to just get things done comes across. This year’s Festival of the Mind was the most successful we have ever delivered with audiences of over 53,000 plus, a total of 333 events delivered by a myriad of colleagues and artists across the city and over 250 staff involved.

Over 65 per cent had never attended the festival before and 95 per cent said it made you feel better about the University and more knowledgeable about its research. But no matter how much evaluation we ask for and this year the response rate was fantastic, it is more the feeling and energy from the audience that is the natural barometer to whether or not the festival is going to be a success and this year the Sheffield public were remarkable. From learning about the history of Sheffield Castle to celebrating the diversity and stories of our multi-cultural community, the audiences were for me the greatest testament to why the University invests money and staff time in delivering this bi-annual event.

The return of the Speigeltent to Barkers Pool was greeted like well-loved and familiar friend with over 9,000 people attending lectures on Nano technology, to bio-diversity, Sheffield Castle, working class lives, and much more. The rich tapestry and complexity of our research was transformed through alchemy (or creative collaboration) into exhibitions, dance movements, virtual reality imaging, complex coding and harmonious choral music by our partners in the city. We laughed and cried at the artistic poignancy of Pete McKee’s tender exploration of love in the third age, especially the bottle of baby oil. I listened in awe as my colleague Dr Sharon Hinchcliffe explained to an elderly gentleman in the audience the importance of intimacy and the safe use of Viagra over a cup of tea at 4pm on a Saturday. The Speigelent was in turn a debating chamber, a place to listen and learn, and a classroom of coloured glass, carved pillars and fantastical imaginings. Musicians collaborated with scientists and designers to inspire the next generation who can change the world, different troupes of dancers from young children to flamboyantly attired flamenco ladies danced the complexity of the world of Nano-science. Nothing was too complex or too bizarre to communicate and the audiences were varied, informed, inquisitive and honest. In the Millennium Gallery, the Futurecade gave us a glimpse of how technology can transform our lives and increase our knowledge of the past. Excited children patiently showed their grandparents or parents how to see the virtual world of Sheffield Castle, our fantastic engineering students used augmented reality technology to highlight the possibilities of new ways of making. Across 19 venues we showed our wares, answered questions, and communicated the importance of our research in imaginative and engaged ways. Our audience was diverse, from throughout the city, and our audience was engaged, asking critical, informed questions that kept us all on our toes.

So in 2020 we will return again, funding has been secured for another Festival of the Mind, our fifth. So thank you my amazing festival team who once again delivered this unique event for the university and the city, the 100 student and staff volunteers from 21 departments who prepared the venues, fixed displays, answered questions, chaired debates and of course my world-class talented academic colleagues whose research can and is changing the world.

But the final thanks must be to the people of Sheffield for embracing the alchemic world we create for 11 days, for turning up in their 1000s to listen, learn, enquire and debate.

We will be back, not in 2019 as some of your requested as we need time to bring new ingredients to the cauldron and to create new magic, but in September 2020. So in the meantime enjoy our other festivals, Being Human and Festival of Social Science starting this month, raise a glass with us at Pint of Science in March, participate in Clinical Trials Day next May and then board the Mobile University in September to start the journey once again.