Dante’s Inferno. Ancient Greek philosophy. Shakespeare. Jack the Ripper. Utopia. Cuban Big Bands. Ghost stories. The Ashmolean Museum’s latest Late Night event, FRIGHTFriday, which took place on Friday 25th November, offered all this and more. Organised as the finale of the Being Human festival, the UK’s national festival of the humanities, the sold-out evening introduced us to our ‘Hopes and Fears’, cooking up a veritable smorgasboard of events in the process. From ‘hands-on’ interactive games and tantalising talks, to choirs, orchestras and amateur dramatics, there was something for everyone – so much so that it was impossible to ‘hope’ to traverse it all in one night.
With over thirty researchers involved, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and organisers behind the event) sought to get the public engaged in humanities research as never before. And engage us they did, expertly weaving cutting edge research into fun, engaging activities, making complex topics such as the brain’s capacity for pain reception easily approachable by use of visual material like 3D brain scans. Games such as Professor Steven Gunn’s ‘Tudor Accidents: What Happened Next?’ taught attendees about coroner reports of accidental deaths in Tudor England by making them guess how each case played out, while talks such as crime author Margie Orford’s ‘Exquisite Corpse – Death and Desire’ introduced important gender studies theories concerning the representation of the female body throughout history while discussing real life crimes such as Jack the Ripper and the Black Dahlia. This was only a small taster of the research that was on offer – from cat-phobia stories by Prof Sally Shuttleworth, to doctoral student Leah Broad’s introduction to Swedish playwright Strindberg with a partial performance of a play, to Dr Hannah Cornwell’s home-made Pandora’s Box lucky dip. Experts were on hand at every turn, ready to present their research in increasingly weird and wonderful forms.
The fun of the evening began before the visitors even entered the museum. Not only did the queues themselves attest to the event’s success, but the Ashmolean set the tone of the night from the outset by transforming the main courtyard into an erupting volcano – an amazing recreation of the 1902 eruptions of the Soufrière of St. Vincent that the Earth Science team are researching. The visitors received a veritable treasure map of a timetable which, if at times confusing, added to the charm of the evening. Inside the museum, there were zombies spinning records, children’s games, and spooky guided tours. Some of the most successful events were the performances that made great use of the space they were in, working with the museum’s collections to create ambience and intrigue. As Victoria McGuinness, the Business Manager behind the event implied, the settings were carefully chosen by the researchers for their relevance to the tales or games they staged. Secreted into strange corners and alluring avenues of the Ashmolean, beside Renaissance paintings, Chinese ceramics, Japanese textiles, Ancient Greek sculptures, and musical instruments, these events used their surroundings to their advantage.
There was something supernatural about hearing Dante’s ‘Inferno’ uttered by Dr David Bowe and his team amongst headless Greek and Roman sculptures. In ‘Storming Utopia: Islands and Identities in Crisis’ actors hid themselves amongst the audience before emerging to deliver their lines, much to the crowd’s unwitting delight. The museum, reimagined as an apocalyptic wasteland of human culture though the ages, was the perfect setting for Dr Catherine Redford’s discussion of and performances of Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man on Earth (1826) and contemplation about our own modern day fascination with judgement day. Slam poet Dan Holloway’s modern re-telling of the W. W. Jacobs classic ghost story The Monkey’s Paw captured the eeriness of spending a night in a museum showcasing the best and worst of humanity – a venture akin to Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, as Holloway put it. Meanwhile, an amulet-making workshop, ‘Hope Through Patterns in Nature’, encapsulating both the materiality of the museum itself and our fascination with jewellery and talismans, even allowed us to take a part of the museum (and FRIGHTFriday) with us at the end of the night.
‘Interactive’ seemed to be a buzzword for the evening, and having only been in the Ashmolean for fifteen minutes I had already reached into Pandora’s box and pulled out a story about hope in ancient times, matched Michelle and Barack Obama’s quotes to each individual in Dr Imaobong Umoren’s game ‘Guess Who’s Talking’, and yelled ‘Death is Nothing to Us!’ as a Roman disciple of the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Such interactivity encouraged us to look at the world through different perspectives from our own – be they those of an Ancient Roman, a romantic poet, or a community group: the LGBTQ+ group’s performance of ‘Project Q’, for example, spoke out about the hopes and fears of coming out. Thought-provoking statements such as, ‘if we could choose we’d all be the same’ and questions on the nature of Utopia raised in performances by the Pegasus Theatre group, rang out loud and clear among the sculptures, statues, and paintings of the Ashmolean, forcing attendees to reanalyse their own ‘Hopes and Fears’.
A year and a half in the making, FRIGHTFriday was more than just an opportunity to disseminate research, and much more about the people involved. An event like this only works because there are genuinely passionate individuals behind it, and as McGuinness made clear, it was as much about giving the researchers an opportunity to engage with the public as it was for the public to be introduced to the research. Researchers even gathered feedback on their work in the form of surveys and responses on the night. And thus TORCH’s FRIGHTFriday concept came full circle – from engaging audiences in research to gathering research, the attendees now forming an integral part of the future research itself.
‘Abandon all hope, you who enter here.’ While this line from Dante’s Inferno surely made an appearance on the night, it’s rather the opposite of the evening as a whole. Rather than abandoning hope, I think FRIGHTFriday succeeded in giving it – not only to humanities researchers worried their research would fall flat on a disinterested audience, but also to the general public, who were given the opportunity to share in some of the most cutting-edge humanities research in the UK today.
To find out more about the Ashmolean and upcoming Late Friday events, please visit their website.