History of the Foundation

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Wenner-Gren Symposia

Burg Wartenstein Symposium 12 Group Photo

Wenner-Gren conferences began in the 1940s as local evening lectures held in the Foundation’s library.  Over the years they evolved into more formal and sophisticated formats, and the Foundation became known for its landmark symposia.

Meetings in the early 1950s were epic, multidisciplinary events with 80 or more participants, requiring years of planning and lasting for several weeks at a time. By the end of the 1950s, however, the Foundation’s leadership decided to shift the focus of its symposia to projects that advanced international communication.  President Paul Fejos believed in the conference medium and envisioned an international center that would bring together the best minds for a more concentrated discussion, in refined (if not lavish) surroundings.

In 1957 Burg Wartenstein castle in Austria was chosen as the new European Conference Center and, after extensive renovations, in August 1958 the castle opened for business with Sol Tax organizing the first Burg Wartenstein symposium on “Current Anthropology.”

Years of experimenting with format and scale led to the emergence of a “Burg Wartenstein model," built on the concept of small, interdisciplinary groups and intense interaction.  Organizers worked hand-in-hand with the Foundation’s president to develop an idea, decide on the list of participants, and create the final program – a true collaboration that typically spanned 18-24 months.  Symposia at the castle were usually week-long affairs, bringing together about 20 scholars with expertise in a topic selected for originality and promise of progress.  Presentations were informal, precirculated papers were summarized but not read, and maximum time was spent discussing the cross-cutting issues that emerged.  Through shared meals and social hours, participants had ample opportunity to build new friendships and new collaborations.  In the two decades of conferences at Burg Wartenstein, the Foundation hosted more than 2,000 scholars at 86 symposia held during the summer months.  During these years, Wenner-Gren also organized and supported major conferences and experimental workshops in the United States and abroad, but the castle was the heart of the symposium program. 

Burg Wartenstein was sold in 1980.  But prestigious meetings continued without interruption, and today symposia are held twice a year at venues around the world.  Locations are chosen for their natural beauty and seclusion, and for their potential to approximate the Burg Wartenstein experience.  The unique BW model, developed more than 50 years ago by the Foundation’s visionary leaders, is still in place.  For more specific information on individual symposia, sponsored conferences, and workshop, please consult this website's Cumulative List of Wenner-Gren Symposia.