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Setting the stage for change with outreach at WOMAD

Image: Alex Brown (CERN)
Image: Alex Brown (CERN)

This year the organisers of WOMAD, a festival in Wiltshire, had the idea to try something different. We teamed up with CERN and Lancaster University to fill a stage with three days of physics-themed workshops, talks, comedy and music.

It’s certainly not the first time science has had a place at a music festival, with every summer filled with events big and small. The organisers at WOMAD suggested the idea and embraced the Physics Pavilion just like any other stage at the festival – giving it a lineup and lots of space in the programme, and trying their best to make it as much a venue as their open-air main stage.

I was lucky enough to be let loose on the Physics Pavilion stage, hosting the tent and introducing our amazing lineup for the weekend. Every talk was full, and I’d like to think our speakers felt like rock stars in their own right.

In the outreach and engagement team here at the Institute we aim to make physics accessible to all, to make it as much as part of our culture as art, dance, and politics. To really be able to do this we have to take risks sometimes, and there’s always that thought in the back of your mind: What if no one comes? But, as we know as scientists, the best discoveries often come from experimenting. It’s important to take those risks, to go outside of our comfort zone and meet our audiences in the places where they themselves are most comfortable – their local communities, museums and galleries… or their favourite music festival.

I’m sure those questions and worries not only went through our minds, as organisations curating and running the stage, but through the minds of the WOMAD organisers too. Change is always difficult, and WOMAD has thousands of regular visitors who know and love the festival and its site. To squeeze in the Physics Pavilion the stages had to be moved around, with different walkways and different positions for traders and venues. With all of this going on, it’s easy to expect some resistance from visitors, but the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The WOMADers embraced the atmosphere of curiosity, and came back again and again.

Along with my colleagues at Lancaster University and CERN, we tried to curate a stage filled with performers that would appeal to visitors from every background. We had family-friendly drop in workshops, bangs and explosions, and – a personal highlight for me – a live linkup with Dr Steven Goldfarb from the ATLAS control room at CERN.

Over the course of the weekend we easily engaged with more than 2000 visitors to the Physics Pavilion tent and although we’re still in the process of counting up the final figures, I would estimate it’s closer to 3000. None of this could have happened without the team that worked so hard to put the Physics Pavilion together, or our wonderful performers who made the weekend so special. I’d like to thank all of my physicist colleagues from the UK and further afield who didn’t hesitate to get stuck in hanging bunting, fairy lights and handing out stickers as well as joining in with impromptu Q&A sessions and the occasional bit of spraypainting. We’re already looking forward to 2017.

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Sarah Barnes

Sarah Barnes

Sarah was the IOP's outreach officer from 2015–16
Sarah Barnes

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