Symposia are based on a format that was developed and refined at Burg Wartenstein castle, the Foundation’s European conference center (1958-1980). Symposia are normally seven days long. This includes the arrival day and opening dinner, five meeting days (including a half-day break), and the departure day. All participants are required to stay for the entire meeting and participate in all academic and social events. The location of the symposium is decided by the Foundation in consultation with the organizers.
Participation in any symposium is by invitation only and there are normally no more than twenty people in attendance, including two representatives from the Foundation and a junior scholar who serves as the rapporteur. Students or family members of participants cannot be accommodated at the symposium or the symposium venue.
The distinctive character of Wenner-Gren Symposia arises from extensive pre-symposium planning and the unique symposium format. Pre-symposium planning begins approximately 15 months before the symposium date with a meeting at the Foundation’s office in New York, where the academic organizers work with the Foundation’s President and Conference Associate to develop the objectives of the symposium, identify specific topics, and decide upon the participants. Participants are given approximately a year to develop their papers, which are circulated in advance of the symposium.
The symposium format emphasizes maximum time for discussion and debate. Pre-circulated papers are not read at the meeting. Instead, they form the basis for extended discussions. Ample free time provides opportunities to continue discussions in less formal settings. The final session provides an overview of the symposium, and participants are given the opportunity to suggest ways they might further develop their papers in the context of the week’s discussions. The entire symposium is audio recorded for the Foundation’s archives.
During her tenure as Wenner-Gren President (1986-1999), Sydel Silverman documented the Wenner-Gren Symposia and published a detailed ethnographic study “The Beast on the Table: Conferencing with Anthropologists” which offers a distinct perspective on this program.