From Digital Dickens to Hull rebuilt in 'Minecraft', the Being Human festival has lots to offer schools  

Pete OrfordDickens expert Dr Pete Orford at the amazing Hunterian MuseumCharles Dickens made certain The Mystery of Edwin Drood would be eternally enigmatic by dying halfway through writing it. He couldn't have known it then but he had provided the opportunity for an internet classic – crowd-sourced endings (in fact the process started with the likes of George Bernard Shaw and The Trial of John Jasper – verdict manslaughter –  way before the internet came along).

Defining Digital Dickens, led by the University of Buckingham, is a flagship event, one of more than 300 at Being Human 2015, the UK-wide celebration of the humanities by some 60 higher education institutions and cultural organisations. It's led by the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and the Wellcome Trust.

Perfect specimens for a human touch

Now in its second year, the 2015 festival was launched among the beguiling biological specimens of the Hunterian Museum (part of the Royal College of Surgeons), and they really do have to be seen to be believed. Maybe a smoked salmon bagel might have been more appropriate at the launch breakfast than the bacon rolls enjoyed next to the pickled ovaries and sim bladder of a salmon, mackerel and even pike. And though the museum is a little over-sensitive about representations of its exhibits, their impact goes a lot, lot further than a fairly typical nervous response of cheap laughs and giggles, of which there were none -- just genuine interest, even awe.

In fact the respectfully presented specimens were perfect props for Kings College scientist Professor Angela Cassidy whose "Being human/being animal"
event at the museum on November 19 (6.30pm8.30pm), explores the relationship between humans and animals. During her ten-minute preview Dr Cassidy quickly answered the most obvious question, "Why are the specimens there?" Because the discovery of ailments in animals helped develop cures for humans too. For example, a collection of the bones of lion cubs, courtesy of London Zoo, demonstrates how rickets was discovered first in animals. A human cure quickly followed.

Still life in Dickens thanks to crowd-sourcing and social media

But I was there for the technology and that was quickly brought to life by Dr Pete Orford, English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, who outlined the progress of the Digital Dickens project since its inception in 2012. It was a wonderful example of public involvement in academia and the humanities. This open, generous project has digitised Dickens' journals. That's 18 years of his periodicals with each full scan accompanied by side-by-side transcript, a full text that can be searched and copied and pasted. And it is, by thousands of people including teachers and their students.

That's an awful lot of text – which includes premieres of A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Woman in White – so how did they proofread it to pick up the slips and errors? It was crowd-sourced. One thousand volunteers took on the task to ensure that the project kept to deadline. And the public involvement didn't stop there. It spread across the UK, the US and, as with rock bands, was 'big in Japan'. In all some, 15,000 people got involved via the internet and, according to Dr Orford, some US schools are also using the project as a resource.

When it comes to filling in missing story endings, professors are on the same level as the general public. All opinions are equally valid. There was even one alternative ending to the whodunit at the core of the Mystery of Edwin Drood from the crime writer Patricia Cornwell in New Zealand. And this work doesn't just stay in the digital domain. Defining Digital Dickens is staging four separate physical events with its partners among them schools, the University of Leicester, Birkbeck University, The Dickens Fellowship and London's Charles Dickens Museum. Beginning on November 14, activities in the series (Dickens journals online, Dissecting Drood, Bloggers unite and Virtual friends) include workshops reflecting on the ramifications of the Victorian author's last unfinished novel, films, readings, exhibitions and performances.

This work may be generated by higher education but it is full of relevance for schools, many of which have benefited. And teachers and students could get a lot from the public events.

Taking the passionate pulse of the Romantics

Quantified Romantics artworkThere's no doubting the public's passion for the arts – but anyone for a bodice ripper? Is this passion something that can be measured when there's no evidence of strewn undergarments? Well Aberystwyth University is taking a hands-on approach by strapping human literary 'guinea pigs' to chairs and subjecting them to projected images of gothic paintings and pages from romantic novels.

OK, that's a slight exaggeration; they'll be willing volunteers -- so no straps required -- but you get the picture. Sensor wristbands will measure their emotional responses to what they see as part of the Quantified Romantics project being conducted by Aberystwyth University. "The arts have always informed science and technology in innovative ways, and a national festival like Being Human is the perfect opportunity to show the real-world relevance of interdisciplinary university research," said Reyer Zwiggelaar, the university's professor of computer science.

Of course there's a serious purpose – to see whether romantic novels really can stir the pulse, as their authors claimed – but it will also be good, clean fun, without, hopefully, a single ripped bodice in evidence. But you never know...

'Minecraft' HullHull reimagined in 'Minecraft'In Hull, historians are using the popular game Minecraft to bring history alive. With this 3D construction software, they’ll rebuild a virtual city true to the 17th-century vision of metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (see illustration, right). Work with the game across university departments has earned one University of Hull academics and Being Human participant, Joel Mills, the Association for Learning Technology’s award for learning technologist of the year.

Called 'Rebuilding Hull with Minecraft', the event at Hull History Centre on November 21 aims to use the popular computer game to get young people enthusiastic about the history of four of the city's landmarks associated with Marvell -- Beverley Gate, Holy Trinity Church, Hull Grammar School and Hull Charterhouse. Joel Mills likens using Minecraft to explore challenging concepts with learners as feeding children "chocolate-covered broccoli".

Rifling through the drawers of the 'queer people's knick-knack emporium'

It's not as if the digital is kept out of the other themes (diversity, arts and culture, health and wellbeing and politics) in Being Human. The Armchair tour of the 'queen people's knick knack emporium' might be in the diversity theme but one of the first give-away quotes from the Victoria & Albert Museum's (V&A) curator Zorian Clayton, was that at one point the fourth most popular search term in their website was "homoerotic". So much for hidden agendas. And the hidden codes and subtexts of gay culture are where Scouse performance artist Bird La Bird excels.

They are the raw material for her highly entertaining performances where she can link a symbolic rabbit in a woman's dress to lesbian weddings in temples in 17th-century China. She promises to reveal all about the rabbit and you can be sure it will engaging, enlightening, frank and funny. "It's going to be rude too," she promises. It's the role of perfomance artists to "sprinkle glitter on the elephants in the room" and ask the questions that others are thinking -- "bull dykes in the china shops of good taste".

Bird la BirdBird la Bird: 'glitter on the elephants in the room'The LGBTQ tours of the V&A's seven miles of galleries have been so successful (check Out in the Museum) that the Being Human event will be held in the lecture theatre where the humans stay seated while the objects parade before them. Bird la Bird will, as she puts it, be "throwing glitter on the elephants in the room", while offering practical tips on how to unearth the hidden histories of the V&A. Afterwards anyone wishing to can download a podcast trail around the museum.

The philosophers at the School of Advanced Study are getting in on the digital act too. Over at its Senate House headquarters on November 13, volunteers will be tested on the "sounds that move us", and which are essential to human being -- music. Led by Dr Ophelia Deroy, a researcher at the School of Advanced Study's Centre for the Study of Senses (CenSes), it promises to be a blend of "multi-sensory science, philosophy and technology" incorporating talks by musicians and researchers with demonstrations of sonic illusions, digital mapping and even "sonic shoes". Part of SAS's "hidden and revealed" series of events, researchers aim to prove that music is not a purely auditory experience, but that along with sound in general, involves other senses such as visual and body movements.

The Hunterian Museum's location and the launch presentations gave a rich, varied and memorable representation of what to expect from the Being Human festival, but they can only scratch the surface of such a geographically and intellectually diverse celebration. What's certain is that schools should not be put off by its higher education sources and locations. Many of the projects already enjoy school participation and would welcome more.

Rounding up the event, the festival frontman Professor Barry Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, hoped that the media visitors enjoyed the "great tasters" for such a huge event. "I think what they show is that there is so much that we need to know, and that we depend on our researchers and scholars to make that information available. By bringing it out into the public they are doing what we always hoped that the festival would do - that we can make our research absolutely accessible and relevant to people's lives.

"We hope that you all come along to these events and support them. Because we are dealing with such a large topic, and the ways in which we express our humanity, and sometimes our inhumanity, we can't do that without having natural relations and collaborations with people and technology and the medicine and the sciences and all those other disciplines. It's a great time to have that kind of collaboration."

More Information

The Being Human festival of the humanities runs for 11 days from November 12 to 22. For the listings for technology-themed events visit
To get the latest news, follow the event on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest.

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