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Public Engagement

‘Secular Celebrations: Then & Now’ Being Human Festival 2022

Clare Stainthorp writes about creating an event for last year's Being Human Festival. If you're feeling inspired, find out more about taking part in Being Human 2023.

Researcher Clare Stainthorp, a white woman wearing a black turtleneck and a green skirt, shows two visitors, a man and a woman, texts in a display case. They are in a bookcase lined room.

Clare Stainthorp shares secular texts with visitors at Conway Hall.

My current research focuses on how working-class atheists, agnostics, and secularists harnessed the power of the periodical press to shape conversations about faith and society in Victorian Britain. I ran a series of one-hour workshops called ‘Secular Celebrations: Then & Now’, which drew upon freethought readings and secular songs that were used to mark life events in the nineteenth-century, in partnership with Conway Hall in central London as part of the 2022 Being Human Festival. 

I set out to run an activity that would provide non-religious people with the opportunity to make connections with their historical counterparts, although people of all faiths and none were welcome to attend to learn about nineteenth-century secular communities. I also wanted to establish a stronger relationship with Conway Hall, who were keen to increase public awareness of their beautiful library as a heritage and learning space. Rather than simply being a researcher who uses their collections, I have now built a partnership with them and we intend to collaborate again. 

I created a booklet for the event that contained poems for attendees to discuss and take away with them, and I also curated a temporary exhibition in Conway Hall library’s display cabinets so that people could look at anthologies and other texts that are usually hidden away in the special collections. Each session began with an introduction to the history of Conway Hall from their librarian. I then introduced Victorian secular communities and how we can learn about the ceremonies that they created to mark births, marriages, and deaths, before conducting a guided tour of the displays and reading some of the poems together. Throughout there were lots of opportunities for participants to ask questions, as well as make connections between the historical material and own experiences of secular funerals, weddings, and naming ceremonies.  

Twenty-five people attended, spread across three sessions on a single day. While it was quite tiring to run them almost back-to-back, it was really valuable for me as a researcher to see what captured different people’s imaginations and the diverse conversations evoked by the same materials across the afternoon.  

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with most attendees agreeing that the event ‘increased my understanding of...’ and ‘inspired me to find out more about...’ the topic. My favourite comment was that the session ‘Reinvigorated my interest and commitment to secular values & ceremonies as a means of expressing these values’! However, I was keen to capture comments outside of standard questionnaires (which were a requirement of running a Being Human Festival event) and I’d hoped to gather people’s thoughts in a way that would build across sessions. I encouraged participants to share thoughts arising from the workshop by writing on post-it notes and sticking these to a reflections board. However, while people were keen to tell me verbally what they’d got out of the workshop, the reflections board itself didn’t really take off. When running similar events in future, I will try to integrate this element into the activities themselves, or find alternative ways of capturing participants’ reflections. 

While I designed the event, it was a team effort. Huge thanks to Holly Elson and Olwen Terris at Conway Hall for their hard work in ensuring its success! I’m also lucky to have financial support from the Leverhulme Trust, which enabled me to print the poetry booklets professionally. I was grateful to receive excellent training and support from the brilliant Being Human team too, which ensured that I carefully considered how to plan and run a public engagement event that was accessible, mutually beneficial, and fun! 



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