Celebrating ten years of Festival of the Mind

Festival of the Mind's director, Professor Vanessa Toulmin, offers her reflections on the event's remarkable ten-year history.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin

How did the Festival of the Mind begin?          

Festival of the Mind will celebrate ten years in 2022, but planning for the very first Festival actually began in 2011.  The idea behind the Festival was to bring the academic research of the University to the city. Back then we felt more needed to be done to show how we were invested in Sheffield. 

In 2011 my friend and collaborator, and fantastic local artist/sculptor Anthony Bennett said it would be great to have an event that brings together the city’s creatives and academics, like our relationship - so we can all work together. With the help of former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Richard Jones, and the then Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Science, Professor Tony Ryan, the three of us achieved a UKRI funding grant of one million pounds and part of that the University matched. 

How did you convince the University to run the Festival? 

I said we should do a project where we collaborate with the city and we take the University's research to the city, using the University's researchers to work with artistic and creative partners in Sheffield. It was probably the shortest and quickest pitch I've ever had to do! I did a lot of research before I pitched it and found no other UK university did anything like this.  It was a bit of risk, however, we pride ourselves here in Sheffield as leading the way so I became Festival Director and we held the first ‘Ideas Bazaar’.  

The Ideas Bazaar was the foundation of Festival of the Mind and we welcomed all academics and creative practitioners with innovative ideas.  We brought the city together and match made people, with many of my colleagues from the cabaret, circus and performance circuit coming along to help facilitate the matchmaking. Fortunately, I had the benefit of having built great relationships with the artistic community as an academic, festival director, and producer, having spent many years running festivals in Blackpool and Margate, and having established the National Fairground Archive.

From this we got 40 projects and then put it into a programme. At the time this was a challenge, to bring many teams together across the University. It was almost like creating a new infrastructure for the academics. As an academic I always felt that we needed to deliver public engagement but I knew we had to develop a support system to do this. From the funding we got, I was able to create the public engagement team and I was seconded from the National Fairground Archive to run the team. 

Vanessa Toulmin & Anthony Bennett
Anthony Bennett & Professor Toulmin photographed in 2022 and 2012.

Tell us about the Spiegeltent. 

We decided that September was the best time for the Festival as there were not a lot of events in Sheffield, and I wanted to create a big visual statement, so that’s how the Spiegeltent came about.  A Spiegeltent is basically a historic dance or performance tent of German, Dutch or Belgian origin dating back to 1900. They appeared on fairgrounds and were travelling entertainment venues taken to villages and towns.  Some festivals just use them as a bar, some use them as a place to hang out but I wanted it to be used as a University venue in the city, almost as a mixture between a lecture theatre and performance theatre; it can also be a cabaret style 300 seated theatre. 

When it first came I thought it was just wonderful. There was one fantastic feedback quote that we got that said ‘this big spaceship landed in Sheffield and all these really smart people came out doing amazing things in the city’ and that was our University! I think my favourite quote from that first year was ‘I could never afford to go to the University but now the University has come to me’, that's just amazing and that actually made me cry to know someone felt that way! 

A crowd of people sat inside a Spiegeltent watching a performance at a previous Festival of the Mind

Is the Festival of the Mind team a big team? 

We created a Festival team that really became a Festival family. I brought in many people from the city, the criteria for the performers and artists is that you have to be working or practising in South Yorkshire. I brought in people like Yellow Bus Events and of course Anthony, but also internal University teams such as the technical staff to help put the Festival on. It was very much (and still is) about the University coming together with the city to do things together and in partnership. Our first four Festivals just got bigger and bigger and every two years I want to have something different.  

So what legacy has Festival of the Mind left over these ten years? 

The Festival has legacies reaching beyond Sheffield and our projects go national. One of the great projects in 2014 was Sounds of the Cosmos, this was a unique collaboration between the Department of Music, Professor Paul Crowther and colleagues from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and creative partners, Human and Sheffield Rep Orchestra. The project saw breathtaking performances in the Octagon of Gustav Holst's ‘The Planets’ combined with stunning visuals of real-life space imagery. The musical performances were interspersed with short talks sharing information, facts and figures about the incredible cosmos that surrounds us. Since Festival of the Mind, Sounds of the Cosmos has gone on to feature at Sheffield Doc/Fest and Latitude Festival, while the recording of the original performance has received 50,000 views on iTunes U and is now on the University's very own digital player. The University of Sheffield Player is now home to lots of previous Festival of the Mind projects so every festival creates a legacy that can be revisited on the platform 

Festival of the Mind

Another legacy is creating new spaces in Sheffield. I'm very used to going into buildings and taking them over as part of my practice as an academic, because I specialise in the practice of going into spaces and transforming them into something different. I'd done quite a lot of these kinds of installations in other places and for a previous Festival we took over Castle House. The space was used by 27 commissioned artists to create and showcase work under the banner of ‘The Sheffield Bazaar’. Castle House was opened in 1962 by the Co-operative society and it was one of the first modernist department stores to be built in the UK, as a result of the unique internal fittings it was granted Grade II listed status in 2009. The Sheffield Bazaar was a huge success welcoming over 10,000 people through the doors of Castle House. People were desperate to see the iconic spiral staircase and in some cases relive old memories of shopping in the once beloved department store. Since the event, the building has been earmarked for £3.5million worth of redevelopment and investment and has been transformed into a start-up digital hub.  Plus there is the fabulous Kommune food space there now too. Basically, we ‘sow the seed’ for these ideas and show what can be done, isn't it fantastic that the public sector can inform the commercial sector?!  

This year's Festival will see work displayed in the new ‘Event Central’ venue, this five storey building on Fargate will be converted by Sheffield City Council to facilitate a year-round programme of events. We are using one floor with Access Space as a pop-up venue before redevelopment. The University was key in securing funding with the Sheffield City Council from the Future High Streets Fund for this unique space. 

Another memorable highlight over the years was opening up The Alfred Denny Museum as part of the Festival in 2013.  Since its founding in 1905, The Alfred Denny Museum, a teaching museum used by undergraduates in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, was open to the public only a handful of times. As part of the Festival we offered a series of tours and a chance to see the exhibits, most of which had been hidden away from public view for almost a century. The tours drew huge public interest and even got us featured on the front page of the New York Times!  

So how close has the University now become with the city? 

The Festival provides a platform to showcase our work in the city and has created many new partnerships which has helped with our cultural vibrancy work as part of Made Together - where we are working with our partners to make the region healthier, greener, more vibrant and innovative for all.  Of course a lot of our research is ongoing and not new for the Festival, but it’s a fantastic way for us to shout about our work and how our research is influencing the world. The Festival used to be the main way the University engaged with the city and region but now it's one of many ways that we engage, it's almost like the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself!