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“State of the Art”: Why the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities is a Revolutionary Project for the Future of Oxford

Adam reports on the new Schwarzman centre.

After a ground breaking ceremony on the 23rd of February, work has officially begun on the £185 million (including an additional £10 million announced last week), 200,000 brick Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. It seems fitting to take stock now and evaluate what such a project means for the future of Oxford and the Humanities.

The project has experienced no shortage of criticism. Concerns have been raised over Schwarzman’s support for Trump (since rescinded) as well as the environmental and economic impacts of his company, Blackstone. Holding the University to account is important, but my short time in student journalism has taught me that it is easy to get caught up in frustration and negativity at the expense of recognising the bright future of the University. 

For this reason, I would like to turn to face the under-acknowledged positives. The future is indeed bright: £185 million is an unprecedented donation for the eternally underfunded humanities and is particularly crucial given the era we are entering. The institute for ethics in AI will place Oxford at the forefront of research into questions like what it means to be human, while the new humanities cultural programme will bring the university’s research to wide new audiences through lectures, exhibitions and performances. Truly, the Centre has the potential to cement Oxford’s position as the leading destination for humanities not just in the UK, but in the World. 

The new institute for ethics in AI has the potential to be particularly influential. It will have six main research themes including what AI will mean for democracy, human rights, and the environment. We are moving into a period dominated by discussions of what humanity’s relationship should be like with the artificial intelligence it creates. As such, it is vital that scientific and technological discoveries are complemented with considerations on issues like how we come to terms with what AI may mean for employment and the automation of day-to-day tasks. There is so much we are yet to understand, and the Schwarzman Centre truly cannot come quickly enough.

Another major part of the new centre will be an array of exciting venues, including a 500-seat concert hall. Professor Dan Grimley, head of humanities at Oxford stated for Cherwell that: “Oxford has a world-class music scene but has long needed a venue that could do full justice to the high standard of music making that the city sustains. Our beautifully designed 500-seater hall will be a top spec facility, with acoustics engineered by the best in the business: Ian Knowles of Arup.” The prestige of those hired to work on the project is inspiring. Bringing in the ‘best in the business’ will ensure that the facilities the building contains will be top of the range, exactly what is needed for academics to further their research. 

Professor Grimley went on to talk about the range of performances that will be hosted in the new venues, with genres ranging from classical, to jazz, to south Asian music. It is particularly exciting to note the attention he brings to experimentation. If Oxford’s music scene is to remain “world-class” as professor he states, then significant investment will be needed now and into the future.

The university’s willingness to provide such investment is an inspiring commitment to the importance of music and the arts in the 21st century, even amidst a misguided attempt by the likes of Rishi Sunak to move the education system towards a more STEM-based focus. Indeed, developments in STEM directly affect our lives, but it is the humanities that allows us to understand where we lie in relation to such developments. This can be done through studying the past as well as the present and the future, allowing us to learn from the social and moral challenges of previous generations and draw parallels with our own. 

The scale of the project is unprecedented. It will bring together 7 faculties, two institutes, 600 members of staff, as well as 140,000 books and other items from core Oxford collections. When asked by Cherwell, Professor Grimley said that with the new facilities, “the possibilities are endless!” As well as providing the environment for collaboration between departments and existing researchers, the next generation of researchers will find inspiration in the 750 new study spaces it will create, around half of which are for graduate students. 

In an era of climate crisis, the project will also be state of the art in its environmental commitments. It aims to be the largest building in the UK to meet Passivhaus standards, demonstrating again Oxford’s commitment to being at the forefront of the battle against climate change. This is exciting and again is the standard we expect from an institution like Oxford. The building will combine high levels of insulation, solar power generation on the roof and heat pumps to usher in a new standard of sustainability to the university. This is impressive, and not only sets a standard for Oxford, but sets a precedent for other large construction projects, university based or otherwise. 

It should also be drawn to attention how real the project will begin to feel in the coming months and years. Imagining all these venues may feel irrelevant to a student body of which many will have left by the time it reaches completion in 2025. However, those in the first year of a four-year course this year will benefit, while a full intake of undergraduates who will have the opportunity to experience the centre’s world-class facilities will matriculate later this year. The project will also feel incredibly real to Somerville students in the coming weeks and months, as a new building takes shape in their back garden.

For more information around the Schwarzman centre and the facilities it will bring to Oxford, see https://www.schwarzmancentre.ox.ac.uk

All statistics and information courtesy of Matt Pickles, Head of Communications for Humanities at the University of Oxford.

Image Credit: <P&P> Photo/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

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