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Event: Bright Ideas

The phenomenal Cambridge Festival of Ideas is back for two full-to-bursting weeks this month. Velvet’s Sarah Ingram picks six highlights

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas, now in its 12th year, celebrates the transformational impact of arts, humanities and social sciences on our daily lives and the latest thinking about the important topics shaping those lives. This year’s theme is change and how change makes us change in response, as individuals, nations and societies.

It’s a packed programme, with more than 250 events to choose from. You can visit an exhibition featuring art made out of pieces of technology at the Cambridge Museum of Technology; take a walking tour of wartime Cambridge; and find out how to combat earworms. Pop along to the Grafton Centre’s Pop-Up World of Languages, or take play seriously at Madingley Hall’s Creativity in Action event. You can even stitch science by crocheting a cell!

Festival of Ideas 2019 (16087378)
Festival of Ideas 2019 (16087378)

“From a changing climate to political realignments, from the challenges of artificial intelligence to lasting effects of the Cold War and the Stonewall riots, this year’s theme of change aims to get to grips with some of the biggest issues of our time,” says Ariel Retik, festival manager. “We are delighted to invite everyone for the 12th year to hear, share and discuss some of the cutting age research happening throughout Cambridge.”

It’s a bit of a challenge, selecting only a handful of highlights from so many awe-inspiring events, but here goes. . .

Feeling (Like) Bach?

We all know how music can move us but, apparently, Bach’s music in its time was believed to effect profound transformations in a listener’s physical and spiritual makeup. Nowadays, Bach’s music is more a ‘disembodied object of aesthetic contemplation’. Dr Bettina Varwig and Baroque violinist Professor Margaret Faultless (both from the Faculty of Music), together with a group of specialist musicians, play selected excerpts from Bach’s work to see if they can help listeners recapture some of the transformative effects it once inspired.

Friday, October 18, 2-3.30pm in the Chapel at Emmanuel College, St Andrew’s Street, CB2 3AP; pre-book.

Worlds of Words: Mapping Stories

As readers, we’ve all marvelled at an author’s ability to create fictional worlds (Narnia, Hogwarts, The Shire spring to mind) but in storytelling, which came first, the setting or the story? This workshop looks at maps, from early world maps to fantasy maps, to explore how settings help shape stories.

Saturday, October 19, 10am-10.45am at the Faculty of English, Sidgwick Site, 9 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP; ages 8+, pre-book.

Victorian Tales: The Natural World of the Nineteenth Century

I did not know this – John Ruskin didn’t like penguins. Why would you not like penguins? You can find out why on researcher Wanne Mendonck’s high-speed tour through the Museum of Zoology’s animal world as the Victorians would have experienced it. You can also learn why Charles Darwin was obsessed with beetles and dined on owls, why late-century ostriches were worth their weight in gold, and why everyone in the 1860s was suddenly into gorillas (well, why not?).


Sunday, October 20, 2pm-3pm at the Museum of Technology, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ; ages 18+, pre-book.

These Four Walls: A Secret History of Women Home-Workers

Created by historian Helen McCarthy and artist Leonora Saunders, this exhibition explores the hidden histories of women’s waged labour in the home and the contested meanings of such work: was it emancipatory or a mark of their inferior position in the labour market?


Friday, October 24 and Saturday, October 25, 10am-4pm in the Milstein Seminar Rooms, Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR; all ages, drop in.

Curating These Four Walls

Helen McCarthy and Leonora Saunders discuss the subject of women’s waged labour in the home and ask whether a visual medium like photography can start new conversations about the past, present and future of home-working, and whether it can help to challenge the inequalities which continue to hold women back in 21st century Britain. After the talk, there’s a chance to view the exhibition with a glass of wine (for ages 18+).

Friday, October 25, 5pm-6.45pm, address as above; all ages, pre-book.

From Auditors to Zombies: Exploring Diversity and Inclusion in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

From Dwarfs and their ‘Campaign for Equal Heights’ to Reg Shoe’s ‘Fresh Start Club’ for Zombies, the Discworld novels explore evolving notions of the acceptance, or not, of the ‘other’. Dr Terri Simpkin leads a Pratchett quote-packed discussion about diversity, inclusion and the ‘delicate value of difference’ in Discworld.


Saturday, October 26, 2-3pm, at Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge CB1 1PT; ages 16+, pre-book.

The 2019 Cambridge Festival of Ideas takes place from October 14-27 over many different venues. You can download a programme, find out about accessibility, and book tickets from festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk or call (01223) 766766.

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