FESTIVALS All in the mind
Sheffield University’s Festival of the Mind brings science and art to the heart of the city
One of the more welcome features in arts funding has been the close involvement of major civic universities in supporting local artistic endeavour. Sheffield University’s unique take on that trend was to appoint a director of city and cultural engagement in the shape of Professor
Vanessa Toulmin. That appointment has borne fruit in the shape of the magnificent Festival of the Mind, a unique collaboration between research scientists and artists which took over the city centre for 11 days last month. With more than 100 performances, exhibitions, and interactive events in venues from the city’s Millennium Galleries to Sheffield Cathedral and a specially constructed Spiegeltent in the middle of the shopping centre hosting talks by academics and artists, live comedy and music.
A highlight of this year’s festival was “Futurecade’”, where fifteen intriguing projects set up shop in the Millennium Galleries and invited visitors to get a glimpse of what life and art will look like in 2025. Sheffielders could be found dancing with robots, discovering what their brain looked like with an MRI scan, indulging in colour experiments and taking part in a happiness survey based on Twitter. Elsewhere they could enjoy late night tours at the Alfred Denny Museum, an installation in a department store window, potion-making for kids, film shows projected on to city landmarks, a performance of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux and a selection of films about Sheffield’s steelworks in the city’s Showroom cinema. In Food Hall – set up by Sheffield graduates to combat food waste – a programme of events gave festival- goers the opportunity to take part in a unique communal dining experience as part of a major project food trialling new ways of engaging the wider community through shared food. Sheffield Cathedral played host to an extraordinary art and light show which displayed what scientific data would look like imagined as art.
This is the third biennial Festival of the Mind since its launch in 2012, but this time, the festival received a major funding boost from Arts Council England and the Royal Society. This enabled festival director Toulmin to reach a wider audience. Every event in the festival is open to all and free of charge.
“There is nothing else like it in the world” she says from her head- quarters in a specially converted yellow school bus, parked behind the Spiegeltent. From here, she directs the operations of 200 academics and an equal number of volunteers who are co-ordinating the festival. If Toulmin sounds like a ringmaster of a circus, that’s not surprising. Born into a fair- ground family, she became an historian of entertainment and curator of the National Fairground Archive before coming to Sheffield three years ago.
“When I arrived“ she says “the university was doing 600-700 events a year in and around the city but it was having no strategic impact”. She decided that the best way to make that impact was to go back to the university’s original mission – to educate the people of the city. For too long, she says, the University of Sheffield used to be known as the university on the hill. “We needed to do something about that image. That meant taking our research into the city rather than confining it to the campus”.
The other thing she realised is that “Sheffield has an abundance of creative people and a fantastic underground culture in art, design and music. We needed to tap in to that”. This was the genesis of the co-production model which underpins the Festival of the Mind. Academics were invited to pitch their research projects through an “ideas bazaar” and then were matched with innovative city- based artists to create ways of putting across their research to the public. It’s not just a way of presenting research – it’s a collaboration which creates something new, she says. For example, the dancing robot is the work of the university’s robotics department and dance company Instant Dissidence. Toulmin’s role is becoming increasingly central to the city’s cultural effort. The university is taking over Off the Shelf, the city’s venerable book festival which is now in its 25th year, and chairs the city’s cultural consortium, heading the Sheffield’s bid to stage the Great Exhibition of the North.
Toulmin recognises that local government is no longer is a position to fund culture in the way that it used to, but that job is not being usurped by the university. “We are not replacing one nipple with another” she says, lapsing back to fairground lingo. “That’s not the role of the university”.
Sheffield University’s engagement with the arts is not just a version of philanthropy, nor even a way of making the city more culturally attractive to potential students and staff; it’s part of the university’s “core business of teaching and learning” adds Toulmin. “Making the university and its work very visible in this way is very strate- gic. We are using our public engagement to raise aspirations”.