History of the Foundation

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The Story and People of Wenner-Gren

Portrait of Axel Wenner-Gren

The Foundation was created and endowed in 1941 as The Viking Fund, Inc. by Axel Wenner-Gren. In 1951 the name was changed to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc.

Axel Wenner-Gren was a Swedish industrialist who in the early years of the 20th Century had the foresight to recognize the potential of both the domestic vacuum cleaner and door-to-door marketing techniques. By 1925 he owned the Electrolux Corporation, which he rapidly expanded into a multimillion dollar enterprise.

The original endowment to the Foundation was approximately $2 million in Electrolux stock. In 1945 Wenner-Gren also provided funds to purchase a brownstone on the Upper East Side of New York City, which was the Foundation’s US headquarters until 1979. He also provided funds for the purchase of Burg Wartenstein Castle (Austria), which served as the Foundation’s European headquarters and conference center from 1958 until 1980. Other than these contributions, the endowment has never been added to and the Foundation does not engage in fund-raising activities.

For a more detailed overview, download the Foundation's 75th Anniversary History, published as a supplementary issue of Current Anthropology including three detailed articles on the Foundaton's history:

  1. Patrons of the Human Experience: A History of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1941-2016 (Susan Lindee and Joanna Radin) reviews the long history of the Foundation and its impact on the international field of anthropology.
  2. Vison and Reality: Axel Wenner-Gren, Paul Fejos, and the Origins of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (Ilja A. Luicak) covers the origins of the Foundation and the often complicated relationship between Axel Wenner-Gren and Paul Fejos.
  3. The Wenner-Gren Foundation: Supporting Anthropology for 75 Years (Leslie C. Aiello) reflects on the modern Foundation and its continuing role in supporting international anthropology.

In addition, download Sydel Silverman's "History of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research" presentation delivered at "Reality and Myth: A Symposium on Axel Wenner-Gren," an international symposium held at the Wenner-Gren Center in Stockholm, Sweden, May 30-31, 2012.
Or Listen Below

Four slideshows of pictures from the Foundation's archives can also be downloaded: 1) a general pictorial overview of the foundation history (video A1); 2) a guided tour through Burg Wartenstein castle with photos dating from the "golden era" of the 1960s and 1970s (video A2); 3) A similar tour through the foundation's headquarters on New York's Upper East Side form 1947 to 1979 (video A3); and 4) an introduction to the modern Wenner-Gren symposia at Palacio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal (video A4).

The 1940s

The original mission of the Viking Fund was to promote “research, educational, technical and scientific work.” It rapidly became clear that the endowment was too small to compete with major foundations such as Ford or Rockefeller. Paul Fejos, the Foundation’s first Director of Research, persuaded Wenner-Gren that well-directed giving could make a significant contribution to the young and relatively neglected field of Anthropology. He emphasized the large vision of the field and its potential importance in engendering post-World War II social cooperation. At the same time he was concerned over the rapid disappearance of important ethnographic and archaeological data due to the in-roads of modern civilization.  One additional concern was the need to foster mutual understanding and friendship between the Americas, which could be accomplished by enabling scholars of various Latin American countries to carry out research in their respective countries.

Wenner-Gren NYC Headquarters in the 1950s

During its early years, the Foundation established a “Small Grants” program, a monograph series, a specialized library collection, and a regular series of lectures and meetings. However the aim was to develop the Foundation into a broad-based, world-wide research institute. After the acquisition of the New York premises, the Foundation housed nine research laboratories, developed a loan program for field researchers, continued to grow its library (which eventually numbered over 28,000 items), provided office space for visiting anthropologists, and encouraged the development and use of new technology in Anthropology. It also expanded both the grant and conference/seminar programs to include among others the influential “Viking Summer Seminars in Physical Anthropology,” which were responsible for introducing the ”New Synthesis” of genetics and evolutionary theory to biological anthropology, thereby setting the tone for the modern sub-discipline.

The Foundation also became known for its “Supper Conferences,” which began in 1944 and lasted through to the late 1970s. These evening meetings provided a forum for discussion and debate for the growing field. The roster of speakers over the years includes many now-historic names, such as LSB Leakey, Alfred Kroeber, Robert H. Lowie, Paul Radin, Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, Margaret Mead, Ralph Linton, Raymond Dart, Alfred Irving Hallowell, Ruth Benedict, Leslie White, Robert Redfield, Sir Julian Huxley, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, among many others.

Wenner-Gren Foundation Logo design by Miguel Covarrubias

In 1946 the Foundation introduced the “Viking Fund Medal,” which rapidly became the most prestigious anthropological honor in North America. Medals were awarded annually until 1961 and five awards have been made since that time. The first Viking Fund Medals were given to Alfred Kroeber (General Anthropology), Alfred Kidder (Archaeology), and Franz Weidenreich (Physical Anthropology). Later recipients number among the best-known and respected anthropologists in the field.

The Viking Fund Medal was designed by Miguel Covarrubias, the well-known Mexican artist, ethnologist, and archaeologist. It was originally struck in heavy bronze with a three-inch diameter and depicts four dancers, representing the diversity of humankind. The design also served as the logo of the Foundation until 2000, when it was replaced with a simple hand print. It was reinstated in 2011 only to be replaced again in 2016 by the current monogram logo.

The 1950s

By the early 1950s, newly established large US government foundations (such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation) began to support Anthropology and applications to the Foundation fell in both number and quality. The Foundation defined a new orientation for itself by emphasizing its developing role in supporting diversity and interdisciplinarity as well as funding that provided support for high-risk, creative projects, and for individuals that might not find success through established channels. One of the earliest and most successful of these was Viking Fund support to Willard Libby for the development of carbon-14 dating.  The strategy was to spread the risk by funding as many small grants as possible that were relatively free from bureaucratic and time restraints.

This new orientation for the Foundation also included a greater emphasis on international communication and collaboration. There were two major initiatives in this area. The first was the development of the “International Symposium Program” at Burg Wartenstein Castle. These were meetings of intensive discussion that included the broadest international diversity of scholars. During the 1960s and 1970s the Foundation hosted almost 2000 scholars at 86 symposia held during the summer months. Many landmark books in all areas of anthropology resulted from these meetings and were published through the Foundation’s “Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology,” as well as through special arrangement with select houses (such as Aldine Publishers) and various university presses.

Castle Burg Wartenstein

Although the Viking Fund series terminated in 1979 and the castle was sold in 1981, the Foundation continues to hold Symposia each year. Post-castle symposia and workshops have hosted more than 1500 scholars. These are in addition to large numbers of conferences and workshops funded through the “Conference and Workshop Grant” program. Between 1979 and 2001 International Symposia were published independently by the organizers and between 2002 and 2009 they were published in the “Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series” (Berg Publishers).  Reflecting the current trends toward journal and electronic publication, symposia are now published as open-access supplementary issues of the Foundation’s journal of general anthropology, “Current Anthropology.”

The second initiative was the launch in 1959 of Current Anthropology (“CA”) after extensive consultation with the field. The aim of the new journal was to become the primary international outlet for research and discussion in all areas of anthropology. CA was the first journal to encourage debate through invited comments that are published simultaneously with articles. In 2000 it was also the first anthropology journal to introduce the possibility of posting electronic supplements to published articles.  Over the years the Foundation has subsidized and managed the journal to insure access for international anthropologists despite fiscal or political issues. In its 50th anniversary year, almost 50% of the subscribers to the journal come from outside of the US as do 50% of the published papers. CA is currently rated among the top anthropology journals and is the top-rated journal that is not solely confined to the sub-discipline of biological anthropology.


The 1960s

The 1960s were affluent years for the Foundation and in addition to its core activities (small grants, publication, and sponsoring conferences and workshops), it also increased program funding. Perhaps the best known of these is the ”Origins of Man” program. This program built on earlier Foundation support for palaeoanthropology (“Early Man in Africa Program,” 1947-1952 initiated by Teilhard de Chardin) and involved many leading figures in the field such as LSB Leakey, Raymond Dart, John Robinson and F. Clark Howell.  Between 1965 and 1972 this program supported a wide range of coordinated research projects, conferences, and publications mostly having to do with human origins in Africa.

A collateral program that built on the Foundation’s long-standing interest in technological development in Anthropology was the “Casting Program in Human Evolution” or ”Anthro-Cast.” Between 1968 and 1976 this program provided over 16,000 replicas of 180 different fossil specimens to institutions and researchers worldwide.

Symposium 44 Group PhotoDuring this period considerable support was also given to researchers working in the human adaptability division of the “International Biological Program” to stimulate the field of human biology. The Foundation also established a special program of “Museum Research Fellowships” to attract students to ethnological research in material culture.

Of the 40-plus International Symposia held in the 1960s, many were landmark meetings that set the agenda for the discipline. Among these were:  “Man the Hunter” (Irven DeVore and Richard Lee; 1966); “Courses Toward Urban Life” (R.J. Braidwood and G.R. Willey; 1960)’ “Economics and Anthropology” (Raymond Firth and Bert F. Hoselitz; 1960); “The Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation” (Gregory Bateson; 1968); and “Ethnography of Law” (Laura Nader; 1966). 

The 1970s

The 1970s were a period of change for both the field of Anthropology and the Foundation. The number of professional anthropologists was rapidly increasing, more women were entering the field, there was increasing specialization and fragmentation in the discipline, and older anthropological traditions were being questioned. This coincided with a general economic downturn and high rates of inflation that put the Foundation under considerable financial pressure. The Board of Trustees had to make the very difficult decision to either spend the Foundation out of existence or institute major changes in order to rebuild the spending power of the endowment. The decision was made to save the Foundation; however this involved considerable retrenchment and change.

Photo of Frank Wadsworth

In earlier decades the majority of Foundation funding went to established scholars, but already in the early 1970s the small grants program was expanded to provide more support for doctoral student research. By 1978 a third of the grantees were students. In 1980 the “Developing Countries Training Fellowships” were introduced to allow students from developing countries to get world-class training in Anthropology. These fellowships are now called the “Wadsworth International Fellowships,” in honor of Frank Wadsworth who served on the Wenner-Gren Board from 1970 to 2006 and was Chair of the Board during these difficult times.

By this time the Foundation was in rented premises, the casting program had been terminated, Burg Wartenstein was about to be sold and the Foundation had withdrawn from its large, long-term, ambitious funding programs in favor of smaller, short-term grants to both students and established anthropologists. It had a markedly reduced staff, space, and facilities but retained its engagement with the field through its publications, International Symposia, and other conference and workshop modes, and its commitment to fund diversity as well as high-risk but creative projects. 

Paul Fejos and Lita Osmundsen

Paul Fejos and Lita Binns Photo by Nicolas MurrayDuring the first four decades of its existence, the Foundation was run by two strong and charismatic personalities both of whom had a significant influence on the development of the field of Anthropology in the US and abroad. The first was Paul Fejos, a Hungarian medical doctor who had a successful career as a film maker in the US and Europe before turning to ethnographic film, meeting Axel Wenner-Gren and persuading him to establish the Foundation in 1941. He is described as having great style and all the imagination and ideas.  On his death in 1963 his young widow, Lita Binns Fejos (later Lita Osmundsen) took over the Foundation and led it for another 23 years until her retirement in 1986. Although she is perhaps best remembered for her astute management of the ground-breaking Burg Wartenstein symposia, the programs that pleased her most were those that aided students and, particularly, the Developing Countries Training Fellowships.

The Modern Foundation (1986 – present)

Over the past three decades the modern Foundation has been shaped by four Presidents: Sydel Silverman (1986 – 2000), Richard Fox (2000 – 2005), Leslie Aiello (2005 to 2017) and Danilyn Rutherford (2017 to present).

Sydel Silverman

Sydel Silverman inherited the Foundation at a time when the field of Anthropology was fragmenting and the Foundation was in considerable turmoil.  She is largely responsible for setting the agenda for the modern Foundation under these difficult circumstances. Her major goals were to retain the Foundation’s strong international orientation and to maintain its focus on basic academic research as well as its support for broad-based anthropology as a unified discipline. In the process of reinvigorating the Foundation, she continued to emphasize the strategy of funding many small, relatively short-term projects, choosing them on the basis of merit and potential contribution to anthropology rather than through any particular programmatic agenda set by the Foundation. Without long-term funding obligations and with invigorated investment leadership of the Board of Trustees, the Foundation began to recover from the rather dire financial situation in which it had found itself.

As the financial situation improved Silverman increased the number of small grants to both students and established scholars, put tremendous effort into revitalizing the International Symposium program and introduced new programs to meet her international goals. The first of these was launched in the early 1990s at the end of apartheid in South Africa. It extended the Developing Countries Training Fellowship to support advanced anthropological training for black South Africans at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand. The second was the “International Collaborative Research Grant,” which supports research collaborations between two or more qualified scholars from different countries and representing different, complementary perspectives, knowledge, and/or skills. And the third was support for the founding and development of international anthropological associations among which were the European Association of Social Anthropologists and the Pan-African Anthropological Association.

Silverman was also particularly concerned with the preservation of the historical record of Anthropology and introduced the “Historical Archives Program.” Since its inception approximately 100 grants have been made to preserve unpublished research materials that might otherwise have been lost, and to carry out oral history interviews with significant figures in the discipline.

Richard G. Fox

In 2000 when Richard Fox took over the Foundation it was in a stronger fiscal position than it had been since the affluent years of the 1960s.  In the first half of the current decade, the Foundation awarded approximately 150 research grants per year, two-thirds of which supported student research. It also funded 20 conferences or workshops (on average) per year along with two International Symposia, which were organized on the Burg Wartenstein model.

Fox was particularly interested in the career advancement of young anthropologists. He re-enlivened the “Richard Carley Hunt Memorial Fellowship,” which was originally introduced in the 1950s as a memorial to the first President of the Foundation and supported the preparation and publication of research already undertaken. This Fellowship currently provides support for up to eight young anthropologists per year to devote full time to writing and has become one of the Foundation’s most popular and competitive programs. Fox also developed the current procedures for peer review and assessment of the large number of grant applications received by the Foundation, which now number over 1400 applications per year across all of our programs.

Leslie Aiello took over in 2005.  The major focus was on modernizing the Foundation’s web presence, overseeing its transition to online application procedures, and making efficiencies wherever possible in its grant-making procedures. In the process the Foundaton changed the “South African Developing World Training Fellowship” into the “Wadsworth African Fellowship,” which each year provides four years of support for an African student at the University of Cape Town or the University of the Witwatersrand to study for their doctorate. She reintroduced the tradition of the Supper Conferences (which were so important in the earlier years of the Foundation) by hosting the monthly evening lectures of the Anthropology Section of the New York Academy of Sciences in the meeting facilities at the Foundation offices. She also worked with the Board of Trustees and the University of Chicago Press to insure that Current Anthropology is on a stable footing in the modern environment of electronic publishing.Leslie C. Aiello

Program changes included the introduction of the “Institutional Development Grant,” which provides up to $125,000 over five years to support the growth and development of anthropological doctoral programs in countries where the discipline is underrepresented and where there are limited resources for academic development. Aiello also introduced the Engaged Anthropology Grant to encourage our grantees to return to the field and disseminte the results of their Wenner-Gren funded research in the most appropriate manner and the Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film to honor Fejos and support young anthropological filmmakers.  Perhaps her most ambitious achievement has been the launch of SAPIENS, an online anthropological magazine to make anthropological research and insight easily available to the general public.

The Foundation actively engages with its grantees to support the highest quality anthropological research and to ensure that the importance of the discipline is recognized beyond the academy. We still believe in risk taking and in the value of diversity and interdisciplinarity in the field and continue to develop new programs and initiatives to enhance our engagement with the field. The Foundation has a rich anthropological history and is in the fortunate financial position to generously support the field into the future.