When we began our HERA project in May 2019, little did we know that our planned schedule of project conferences and workshops would seem fantastical less than a year later. Various pandemic lockdowns and travel bans soon made meeting in person an impossible luxury, especially for a project whose team is scattered across 5 countries and 3 time zones. And so it was that the project team only got together for the first time in its entirety in late October 2021, at a week-long workshop hosted by the Lorentz Center in Leiden, Holland. We had all been ‘meeting’ at project gatherings on zoom and at several online conferences, of course, but meeting physically at the same place gave us all a boost and focus that virtual meetings had not managed to do.
The main aim of the meeting was to share research findings within the group, and to test out arguments and tentative project conclusions on interested observers. The pandemic limitations had thrown unexpected light on the subject of our project, the history of scientific conferences and conferencing as a habit and set of practices. Invigorated by an apparent new relevance of the subject of conferences, in the workshop we circled around questions such as: How have conference formats changed over time and in different contexts? Why have for centuries groups of all kinds found it necessary to meet at conferences? What happens when people meet in the same place, or online? How were international conferences different from those more limited in scope? Why was conference participants’ physical proximity often so explicitly valued? How far can and should virtual conferencing replace physical meetings? Are the limitations of virtual meetings fixable with ‘the right’ kind of technology? To what extent does the long history of conferencing constrain or restrict any future formats? What counts as a successful conference?
Appropriately enough, our workshop was a so-called ‘hybrid’ one, allowing for both physical participants in Leiden and virtual participants online, via MS Teams. Throughout, and encouraged by our hosts at the Lorentz Center, we experimented with different formats of sharing insights and discussing ideas. The Lorentz Center is a professional conference hosting centre, and we are grateful for their generous support and use of their facilities. Conversation formats ranged from standard presentations of pre-circulated papers, to more general commentaries and panel discussions, ‘walk talks’ and ‘fishbowl’ dialogues, paper feedback via blackboard (paper) and chalk, as well as more focused project group meetings to complete specific tasks – and of course plenty of workshop coffees, lunches and dinners, and a few extra-curricular excursions.
In the first two days, all project members presented drafts of papers for a special issue we have been working on. Case studies include late 19th century international geological congresses, Chemists’ Conferences around the First World War, conferences of organisations such as the World League for Sexual Reform in the 1920s, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in the 1940s; as well as a range of conferences taking place in the second half of the twentieth century, such as the Pugwash conferences, the Gordon research conferences, the Nobel Symposia and the meetings of the International Foundation for Science. Discussants from outside the project group helped us to make connections with their own historiographies and scholarly fields, which helpfully broadened our view. In fact, one of the unusual aspects of the workshop was that we brought together historians in the project with scholars from outside, including from the humanities and sciences. This allowed for a variety of different viewpoints on the questions and topics discussed. In discussions we tried to disentangle particularities of each case study, and identify connections between them as well as overarching patterns. It was often a doubly self-reflective activity, where we tried to relate our historical findings on conference practices to what we ourselves were doing, and how patterns could change in the future.
In the last three days of the workshop, the project group made the most of our time together, and closely workshopped contributions to the special issue, and other project timelines and outputs. Even though work emails, teaching commitments and home family dramas occasionally pulled us away, we all valued and were energised by the focused time spent on the project – a focus few of us have felt since the project began.
The hybrid format was not without its challenges. Online participants at times struggled to hear and follow conversations in the room in Leiden, which moved faster than the room camera and audio could capture, and was limited by the usual pixelated images and troublesome internet connections we have all meanwhile experienced aplenty. Occasionally two separate ‘conferences’ were taking place, one online and one in Leiden, and connections between them at times floundered. As online participation dwindled towards the end of the second day, those left behind were in a lonely minority. Nonetheless, the semi-online format did allow for the participation of a range of people who could not make it to Leiden, and whose input was greatly valued. There were fewer challenges for participants attending in person, even if many had to brave the paperwork of pandemic travel controls. The rewards for the Leiden crowd were probably much greater, with more focused discussions and plenty of interesting talk over coffee and food. Perhaps physical conferences are here to stay after all.