Conferencing the International: a cultural and historical geography of the origins of internationalism (1919-1939)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography


One of the largely forgotten legacies of the First World War was the belief that peace would result from connections between and across national borders, the fault lines of the war itself. After the centenaries of the War have concluded, we will argue that we should remember how hopes for peace were tied to hopes for connections across the earth; that is, for "the international".

Forging these connections and new worlds required new sites of interaction, meeting, learning and friendship making. These sites were the international "conferences" of the interwar period, the places in which internationalism was forged and politically debated, emerging through conversation, disagreement, dance, song, taste, and laughter. Through piecing together the records of these meetings, we will provide a rich history of the spaces through which the international was created and challenged, and in which it floundered.

Existing literature has shown that conferences had grown in popularity towards the end of the 19th century, connected to wider showcases such as world fairs and universal exhibitions (35 between 1900-1910) and to the explicitly internationalist claims of the socialist and communist left. But there is a dearth of research into modern international conferences that emerged specifically to take advantage of the opportunities the post-war world offered for peace. For some, peace was the stability of pre-existing colonial empires; for others, peace was "not-war"; while to others, peace required the destruction of the pre-war political landscape.

We will examine three sets of conferences that demonstrate these visions of peace and their forms of internationalism that were emerging through and in tension with specific nations (Britain, France and the USA): the Round Table conferences on the future of India in the British Empire (Legg), the International Studies conferences of the League of Nations's ICIC (Heffernan), and the Pan-African Congresses (Hodder). Each of these conferences provided a public commentary on the changes brought by the war and the prospects of a new international order which it was seen to make possible. It was the secret negotiations before and during World War I which exposed the urgent need for public political meetings, to which people would travel from around the globe; these meeting spaces are what international conferences provided.

We know very little about the internal spaces of these conferences. Internationalism wasn't centrally organised; it took place through specific, brief meetings of overlapping groups in particular locations. As a result, the archives of modern internationalism is fragmented and dispersed. This project will re-assemble and re-interpret these archives through an analysis of the infrastructures, materials and performances of the inter-war international conference: where people stayed; how their days were planned; how clothing and manners facilitated or hindered certain meetings; what they discussed, and how.

One hundred years after the First World War it is often claimed that modern digital technology and instantaneous communication will render the practice of conferencing obsolete. Yet our globalised world is still shaped by G20 meetings, Climate Change Summits and World Economic Forums, embedding locations like Davos and Kyoto in the international geographical imagination. This project will historically situate and explain how conferencing in our contemporary period remains as important as ever. We will communicate our research through a co-authored monograph and an edited volume resulting from a major international conference and exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society on international conferencing at the end of the award, as well as with smaller workshops that will bring together academics, conferencing professionals, and community groups with interests in the global cast that these meetings assembled.

Planned Impact

Our research findings will be publicly launched immediately after the centennial commemoration of the Armistice in 2018, tapping into the substantial informed and curious public opinion which will have been created by four years of war centenaries. We will shine a new light on the interwar years through emphasising the international, the non-European, and the microcosms of the conferencing world. The highly visual research material will provide ample opportunities for cultural enrichment that will benefit the creative and media industries via our multi-sensory histories of the fashions, foods, interior decors, comportments and performances of the interwar world. Beyond popular interest we will specifically target three groups of beneficiaries.

1. Professional practitioners: To enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of outside organisations with potential benefits to the UK's global economic performance, we will share historical lessons of how conferences succeed or fail with these practitioners, presenting examples of successful host venues, programmes, etiquette and infrastructures, and the range of spaces used to combine business negotiation with environmental enjoyment that will inspire and improve their economic performance. Our workshops and international conference will provide a valuable networking event with contemporaries from cognate professions. We will select the most suitable practitioners to collaborate with from the following: representatives of NGOs and other agencies involved in international conference organisation; representatives of commercial companies specialising in conference organisation such as Bond Dickinson LLP, Informa, Getenergy, and World Business Research; representatives from the hotel and hospitality management industries; and representatives from a selection of learned societies involved in conference organisation, including the Royal Geographical Society and the International Geographical Congress.

2. Representatives of the modern incarnations of the historical conferences under study: these beneficiaries will learn about the history of their organisations, what made them succeed, and what made them fail. This will enhance their sense of institutional confidence and pride, provide new historical perspectives, and provoke them to reflect on their racial and international identities. These will include representatives of the UNESCO (see letter of support), Round Table organisation, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the on-going Pan-African conferences. The infrastructures which supported the conferences also have contemporary manifestations. These hotels, restaurants, bars, and institutions will also be actively involved in the network of academic and non-academic partners, increasing their awareness of their historic roles which will present various opportunities for business collaborations with similar institutions and marketing opportunities.

3. British South Asian and Black communities: the research will benefit society and encourage personal pride by providing inspirational role models and creating new public knowledge. The Round Table and Pan-African conferences represented early if temporary moments of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in Britain and abroad. The figures involved will be an inspiration to black, Asian and minority ethnicity communities, especially children, who will get to learn about inspiring figures such as Gandhi and WEB DuBois. We will build on extensive connections forged by Heffernan as Co-Director of the AHRC World War One Engagement Centre which addresses national and faith communities that were excluded from WWI commemorations nationwide. We will work to enhance community cohesion via gatekeeper organisations such as the New Art Exchange (see letter of support), Nottingham's Pakistan Centre, the Hindu Community Centre, and the Afro Caribbean National Artistic Centre.


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Hodder J (2016) Toward a Geography of Black Internationalism: Bayard Rustin, Nonviolence, and the Promise of Africa in Annals of the American Association of Geographers
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