Festival themes – what’s the big idea?

We recently announced our theme for 2019's festival – People Power. It’s the third year we’ve had a national theme so a good time to pause and reflect – what’s the value of a theme and where do you start with this year’s subject?

A theme can inspire new ideas for events and provide a focus for research to uncover untold stories. All of which creates interesting new material for visitors, and a fresh angle to renew media interest in an annual festival.

‘Extraordinary Women’ was quite extraordinary!

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This year’s theme was Extraordinary Women in honour of the anniversary of the first women in the UK being able to vote. Our aim was wider than suffrage stories though, and our organisers responded brilliantly!

  • They sent us over 140 different suggestions for women whose stories deserve to be told - who now feature on our special Wall of Women. From Licoricia of Winchester, a 13th century businesswoman to Sylvia Dodds, wardrobe mistress at Gateshead’s Little Theatre.
  • Over the festival they ran more than 500 events to tell these stories and explore yet more; from talks and exhibitions to theatrical performances and a city wide vote!

The theme generated a real buzz and started many lasting conversations.

Making it count – when the theme year ends

BBC Radio Leeds presenter Steph Hirst unveils one of the new Rainbow Trail plaques - for composer Angela Morley

Once each festival is over though, what then, what happens to all that amazing work done to build networks and uncover stories for the theme? It’s easy to get swept up in the next big thing and yes, we do move on to a new theme, searching for new ways to uncover hidden histories BUT it’s important to build on what came before wherever possible.

  • LGBTQ+ stories – Before we highlighted these stories as a theme we had only one or two related events. But we’ve seen a small but significant increase since, and are delighted that it helped inspire the Leeds Civic Trust to develop a Rainbow Plaque Trail.
  • Landscapes and Nature – Since we first started working in this area for the Capability Brown Festival we ‘ve been able to build the profile of the heritage held within these special places, working with Natural England to open up several National Nature Reserves and The Gardens Trust on their Sharing Repton project.
  • Extraordinary Women –We already know that locally the Friends of Winckley Square in Preston have now added a regular Extraordinary Women tour to their schedule of events after its success over Heritage Open Days. While nationally we will be working with the Women’s Engineering Society next year to help celebrate their centenary.

Firing up for People Power

People Power comes in many forms

This week I met up with one of our great teams of local organisers – the Sheffield crew. We had a great chat about themes, how Extraordinary Women this year really inspired them but also questions on quite what to do with our new theme – People Power. After a quick explanation though they were away, they had so many ideas of interconnected stories that led to new thoughts and fascinating ideas. It was a joyful meeting full of the local energy that drives Heritage Open Days – People Power in action in fact!

Find out more about the People Power theme and how you can get involved on our latest news item.