Cambridge Festival of Ideas


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It was actually very strange how I came to work on the Festival of Ideas; I was living in India and I was going to move to Cambridge in September of 2012. But around July, when I had left my last job, which was at a cultural institute, I was looking at similar jobs in Cambridge and surprisingly there wasn’t a lot on offer. I suddenly saw this one and I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds so interesting! I’m just going to put in this application and see what happens.’ And, sure enough, I got an interview.

We had a Skype interview, which was my first experience of that, and it was weird. What do you wear to a Skype interview? I was looking all formal on top and was wondering whether I worry about the bottom. Do I wear shoes? Then I came back for an interview at the office here and the rest is history!

The Festival’s been running for over seven years now. This will be the 8th Festival. It originated because although the Science Festival existed and Cambridge was always famous for its science and technology, nothing of the same kind existed for the arts, philosophy, literature and history, etc. They were very important in Cambridge but didn’t have that kind of public-facing element. So the Head of Public Engagement, Nicola Buckley, put in a proposal to start a similar festival for the arts, humanities and social sciences. There was recognition that it had to be done and that’s how the Festival was born. It was tiny to begin with and now it’s grown and evolved into two giant weeks.


My title is basically, Festival Coordinator – and there’s no shortage of coordination involved! There’s a lot of event management but also trying to understand what goes on in terms of research across the University, programming, and making sure that it comes together in time. Ensuring that there are some interesting and creative ways of expressing some of this research and making sure there’s an even split between topics and subjects. Programming is a huge responsibility, and then delivering, and finally, evaluating.

Our target audience is anyone and everyone! It’s broad and wide. At one level, we want children and young adults to engage with these topics, encourage them to take up these ideas further and study them at University – that’s one side of it – and the other side is really about engaging adult audiences and ensuring they become part of the debates and discussions around them.

Cambridge is a small city and a proportion who live here are in some way or another associated with the University, but we have, relatively speaking, a lot of attendees who have nothing to do with the University and that’s part of the agenda, to broaden it beyond University audiences.

It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s the period after the Festival is over that I most enjoy, partly because you get to think back and reflect on how things have gone, and there’s a relative calmness, which is quite nice. It’s also my chance to think ahead because that is my job. So, I’ve got a full year to plan it and there’s a lot of opportunity between December and March/April to go out and meet new people, discuss ideas and develop the Festival and I guess that’s my favourite part of it – the potential. Not the part leading up to the Festival, which is a lot more stressful.

The first Festival I ever did was in 2012 and I had just started in August, so I had no idea what I was in for. It’s very hard to know what this Festival looks like when you’ve never seen one. You have no idea what it’s eventually going to look like. It’s not like when there’s a big tent where everybody’s going to come in, it’s all happening in different places; it’s all a bit confusing.

One particular memory was the opening reception for the Festival. My last job was quite glamorous; if there was a reception, you’d dress up, wear high heels and make-up. I assumed this one was going to be the same. But I swear I have never run around so much in my life. I had heels in one hand, bag in the other, I’d worn a sari – I should not have done that. It was all over the place by the end of it! There was so much heavy lifting and things to do. There were just two of us running around like headless chickens. It was quite an eye-opener. From that point on, when it comes to these things I’m always in trainers and a hoodie. And to be honest, I prefer that!

I guess we’re quite confident, conceptually at least, there’s nothing quite like this Festival even in London (or the rest of the world), in terms of a largely free festival that’s looking at marrying up arts and research – it’s quite a novel idea, and I think that’s our main selling point in a sense. It’s that concept that’s really strong. We also like working with partners in the city, that’s really important to us, because we don’t want to be working in isolation, that’s not the idea. We work with local partners like the Junction, Cambridge Corn Exchange, so venues or local artists or smaller festivals, etc. We like to be part of that community of art practitioners in Cambridge. I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re doing anything super innovative. We’ve got a good concept, a solid foundation, and a reason to exist. We’ve got an absolute wealth of resources with the academics and students that get involved, we’re really lucky. The brain power exists, that’s for sure!

It’s hard to pick the event that I am most looking forward to in this year’s Festival; although I’m really looking forward to the BBC Arena project. It’s a huge installation across the city – a 24-hour film that runs from noon till noon, and the idea is that it’s synced with the time of day. It’s been made for the 40th anniversary of BBC Arena and so there’s plenty of footage from the last 40 years. We’re planning a huge installation that can be shown on screens everywhere in Cambridge and we’re looking for partners to come on board, so if you’re interested… It’s very low maintenance; you just need a computer or a television or an iPhone and an internet connection. If you’re interested get in touch!

Image credit: BBC

Image credit: BBC

Find out more about ‘Night & Day’ here.

In terms of the future of the Festival of Ideas, we don’t want to make it much bigger because it’s already quite big. I think the idea would be to develop projects that are more long term, so do fewer of them, but more long-term projects that may not result in anything next year or the year after but that will have a large impact in say 2018. I’d like to explore those things. Of course, we have to fundraise, and it depends on what sorts of grants are available and what departments get on board, but that’s the sort of thing I’d like to see.

If you are interested in getting involved, the Festival operates a little bit like a fringe in that we welcome people to put in proposals (for events). There is a very simple email address that is probably the best way to do it. Email [email protected] with any ideas you have or any thoughts you might have on how you want to get involved, especially if it involves producing an event or anything for the Festival; we need to talk way in advance. The Festival programming closes at the end of May; winter and spring is when things need to get sorted. Having said that, not everything can be included. We often have a theme for the Festival and it’s important everything aligns with that particular theme, otherwise it’s too broad and we’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

In terms of volunteering that’s the best, and frankly the most fun opportunity to get involved, because we work with about 100 volunteers every Festival and we really couldn’t do it without the time and effort they put in. It’s a good laugh! You obviously get to attend events, but more importantly there’s a nice community of people that get together to do it and every year the community’s just growing. If you’re new to Cambridge, it’s a nice way to meet new people. So yes please do volunteer, we love having volunteers and again you can email [email protected]


One thing I particularly love about Cambridge may seem odd but I really love having a river. I’ve never actually lived anywhere that has a river that’s easily accessible. I love that! Being able to walk by the river in the summer and jumping in every now and then. I love punting too; I never get sick of that.

Another thing I like is the scale of Cambridge. I think it’s the perfect size, I don’t think it’s too big, or too small. Well, sometimes too small…but then I did grow up in Delhi, one of the biggest cities in the world. There’s also such a nice community of people here who I’m getting to know all the time; they’re very friendly and welcoming.

My favourite, free thing to do in Cambridge is walking. I love going for walks! There’s lots of exploring to do, which I really enjoy. I also really enjoy it when there are other festivals on, food stalls, music, performance and that sort of thing. I love the museums! Of course, the Fitzwilliam is gorgeous, but I also like the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. I think it’s well cool! If there was a fun fact about me it could be that I don’t think I know a single joke! But, I can balance a pint glass on my head and dance (at the same time). That is my only party trick.

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