History of the Foundation

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Conferences, Seminars & Symposia

Dinner scene at Burg Wartenstein
Sherwood Washburn, Paul Fejos, Betty Howell, and Lita Binns Fejos at Burg Wartenstein in 1961.

The Foundation’s support for meetings goes back almost to the beginning, when in the fall of 1944 it hosted the first in its distinguished series of Supper Conferences (1944-79).  These after-dinner lectures provided a forum for speakers to explore old ideas in the light of new data and to preview new findings and interpretations for discussion among a small group of colleagues. 

The program took off in its second year, with talks scheduled once or twice a month, and often with significant outcomes.  In October 1945, Sherwood Washburn’s “Discussion of a Proposed Summer Session in Physical Anthropology” found an enthusiastic audience and soon took shape as the Foundation-sponsored Viking Fund Summer Seminars in Physical Anthropology (1946-53), which Washburn helped to design and direct.  The seminars had a powerful impact on expanding and redirecting the scope, methods, and goals of the field, and resulted in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. 

Through these early, modest efforts to bring together diverse perspectives, the Foundation recognized a large-scale potential, and in 1952 Wenner-Gren mounted its first major congress, the “International Symposium on Anthropology.”  The success of this meeting led to continued sponsorship of large, comprehensive symposia held in the United States and abroad until 1958, when Burg Wartenstein castle in Austria was acquired.  The castle became the Foundation’s European Conference Center, and a new model, based on small groups and intense interaction, emerged.  Although the Foundation organized influential meetings at other venues during the 1960s and 70s, the castle became the heart of the symposium program, and landmark conferences were held there until it was sold in 1980. 

Since then, the unique format and spirit of exchange created at Burg Wartenstein have continued to shape Wenner-Gren Symposia, which are now held at secluded retreats around the world.  The model is still in place, and the vision of building a network of communication, internationally and across disciplines, remains central to the work of the Foundation.