History of the Foundation

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The Story and People of Wenner-Gren

Portrait of Axel Wenner-Gren
Axel Wenner-Gren, founder of the Viking Fund (later the Wenner-Gren Foundation)

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 just under $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 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.
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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
Wenner-Gren NYC Headquarters at 14 East 71st Street (circa 1951)

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. In Fall 2011, the Covarrubias design was adopted anew as the official logo of the Foundation.

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
Burg Wartenstein served as the Foundation's European Conference Center from 1958-1980

Although the Viking Fund series terminated in 1979 and the castle was sold in 1981, the Foundation continues to hold International Symposia each year. Post-castle symposia and workshops have hosted more than 1300 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, future symposia will be published as special issues of the Foundation’s international 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 three 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 in giving small grants (approximately 125 per year), publication, and sponsoring conferences and symposia across the broad-based discipline of Anthropology, 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
Frank Wadsworth served as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1970 to 2006

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 Murray
Photo by Nicolas Muray
During 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 three Presidents: Sydel Silverman (1986 – 2000), Richard Fox (2000 – 2005), and Leslie Aiello (2005 to the present).

Sydel Silverman
Sydel Silverman, Wenner-Gren President 1986-2000

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 Fou