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From prehistory to Brexit: historic events and figures take centre stage at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Stalin’s legacy, the birth of the New China and extreme protests around the world form part of a host of history-related events at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

Speakers include Professor David Reynolds, Professor Hans van de Ven and Fiona Mactaggart, Chair of the Fawcett Society.

The Festival takes place from 15th to 28th October. There are over 200 events, most of which are free. Bookings open on Monday 24th September.

The history-related events span from an interactive Prehistory and Archaeology Day for all the family to a discussion about the legacy of the protests for women’s right to vote, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  Historical figures and events around the world will be put under the microscope.

In We need to talk about Stalin Professor David Reynolds will reflect on how Western perspectives on Stalin have changed since the end of the Cold War and why the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union remains one of the most challenging problems - both historically and morally - in writing the story of the 20th century. 24th September.

Reynolds, who is professor of International History, says: “Stalin has been dead for 65 years but, as a historical force, he's still alive and kicking, Many Russians still revere him. And, in an era of would-be 'strong leaders' - Putin, Trump, Erdogan and the like - he still has lessons to teach. In Russia itself Putin certainly seems to believe that the country’s size, diversity and social divisions continue to make strong leaders seem essential. The Gorbachev revolution of the 1980s has also failed to take root politically. But Russia is now a very different country from 30 years ago - the cities, at least, are recognisably Western and most Russians over-16 have internet access. So it's not clear how long they will accept Putinesque politics.”

China at war: triumph and tragedy in the birth of New China 1937-1952 - Following Japan's surrender to the Allies in August 1945, the Chiang Kaishek's Chinese Nationalists and Mao Zedong's Communists had to choose between war and peace. Would they give peace a chance, as many hoped after years of warfare that had left tens of millions of victims in its wake, or would they resume a civil war that had been ongoing since the 1920s and which had never stopped. They chose the latter with consequences that remain fundamental to the world in which we now live. Professor Hans van de Ven recounts what happened and its implications today. 20th October

The Festival will also host a series of history-themed exhibitions and installations:

Memory Line is a multimedia art installation which tells the story of women computer programmers’ role in the creation of one of the world’s first digital computers in Cambridge.

On 6 May 1949 a team of engineers, led by Sir Maurice Wilkes in the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory, ran the first programme on a new digital computer called the Electronic delay storage automatic calculator (EDSAC).

EDSAC is one of the first digital computers ever built with a programmable memory that allowed it to store data. Using tubes of mercury, the computer stored bits of data by sending ultrasonic pulses through the tubes and creating a memory feedback loop. The computer’s memories were literally soundwaves.

A team of retired computer engineers are currently building a replica of EDSAC at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park.

Memory Line, which has been made possible with funding from Arts Council England's Grants for the Arts programme, includes recollections from Margaret Marrs who had been working a computer programmer for one of the UK's first private computer companies in Manchester. A new staff member, a man who had just completed his degree, was employed in the same role as Margaret's and was offered more pay than her even though he had no experience. It wasn't long after this that she decided to seek employment elsewhere and joined the groundbreaking team on the EDSAC at Cambridge.

Black Cantabs - the story of Cambridge University’s black students from 1745 to the present day is told in a series of captivating portraits by some of the world’s greatest photographers. Visitors to the exhibition will see rare archive photography such as Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya in a private moment at the United Nations and legendary social scientist Archie Mafeje strolling through Cape Town alongside iconic shots of screen stars Thandie Newton and Naomie Harris and writer Zadie Smith. They will also enjoy newly commissioned portraits of classical composer Errollyn Wallen, playwright Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan and MP Diane Abbott.

Face to face with medieval Cambridge is a trail and exhibition are based on the Department of Archaeology’s ‘After the Plague: Health and History in Medieval Cambridge’ project. The project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, aims to learn more about health, life and death among the medieval urban poor in Cambridge, focusing on skeletal remains excavated at St John's Hospital cemetery. Using techniques such as isotopic analysis, palaeopathology and aDNA studies researchers will show what kind of lifestyle medieval people in Cambridge led. This information will be used to attempt to recreate a few of these individuals using reenactors dotted around the city of Cambridge, where the real people would have lived, worked and died some 700 years ago.

The Festival’s theme of extremes forms part of a series of discussion events and talks:

Turbulent times: comprehending extreme political changes - from the English Civil War to the Warsaw Uprising and Brexit, this event provides insight to how extreme events are lived and remembered, and how they are construed to reflect new political movements and priorities. 19th October

Vertical extremes: mountains and the modern world - this panel discussion, ranging across history, geography and other disciplines, considers case studies of how vertical extremes across the globe are shaped by - and in turn shape - forces of modernity. 19th October

Forms of extreme protest in the post-war West - This event explores two very different forms of extreme protest in the post-war West. Bethan Johnson explores parallel violent protest cultures within ethno-separatist movements in the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Belgium, and Canada in the Long '68 period. George Severs will explore two forms of extreme religious protests as part of the HIV/AIDS movement in Britain: the Catholic AIDS Link and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. 20th October

Extreme demands: from the right to vote to today’s issues - who are the extremists? And how does our perception of extremism change over the course of history? Newnham College considers the issue through the lens of attitudes to women’s education and empowerment, with a session of three short talks. Speakers include historian Dr Gill Sutherland and Fiona Mactaggart, Chair of the Fawcett Society. 20th October

Fashion extremes in early modern Europe - historian Abigail Gomulkiewicz investigates the clothing worn by monarchs and their subjects, with particular attention paid to early modern England. Her talk probes what ‘extreme’ dress and accessories  - from include the huge ruffs worn around the neck and the white faces covered with lead or other types of make-ups to shoes with bows and flowers reveal about the courts and societies of the period. She considers what men and women actually wore and how this might diverge from their portrayal in portraiture. 20th October

Extreme eating: fasting and feasting in early modern Europe 1500-1800 is an illustrated talk by the curators of an upcoming exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, ‘FEAST FAST EAT: The art of food in Europe, 1500-1800’. 20th October


Other history-related events include:

On the edge: writing in Roman Britain - join Dr Anna Judson as she explores the wide range of written documents that survive – from gravestones to letters, and birthday party invitations to curses – and what they can tell us about life in Roman Britain. 24th October

In Love, sex, race and war Lucy Bland, Professor of Social and Cultural History at Anglia Ruskin University, will talk about her oral history research interviews with the mixed race children of war-time relationships between Black US GIs and local British women. 24th October

The Festival sponsors and partners are St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Cambridge Junction and Cambridge University Press. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.