In the second post in our new series of workshop and conference reports, Jessica Reinisch reflects on last week’s workshop entitled ‘London and the International City’ at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. Do get in touch with email@example.com if you would like to report on any workshops, conferences, exhibitions or other events relevant to the study of internationalism, broadly conceived.
On a swelteringly hot day last week, Stephen Legg and his research group – recently featured in the Centre’s spotlight series – convened a workshop on the theme of London as a site of international conferences. The meeting was part of his four-year AHRC funded project on different forms of internationalism as exhibited in the spaces of international conferences of the interwar decades.
The workshop was held at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster – site of the first General Assembly of the United Nations in January/February 1946. Participants included scholars of internationalism, development and international relations, as well as diplomats and civil servants organising international events as part of their professional lives.
In the first session, Stephen McGowan (Head of World Events, Department of International Trade) and Reshaad Durgahee (Africa Operations Lead, Department for International Trade) spoke about the great range of political, practical and logistical factors that had to be considered in the organisation of official and semi-official international events. Both concluded that the physical setting – the rooms and buildings in which conferences take place, but also the hosting towns or cities – crucially shapes the atmosphere in which formal and informal exchanges take place, and has a ubiquitous (but at times hard to pin down) effect on the conferences’ results and legacies. The discussion touched on the role of the artwork on display in conference suites; the absence of institutional memory of conference-organising; formal measures of what constituted a successful conference; the question of whether different underlying models of internationalism were visible in different international gatherings; as well as the range of logistical and practical matters that conference organisers had to deal with as a matter of routine.
In the second session, Ruth Craggs (KCL) presented three historical examples of how locations had shaped meetings of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM). She concluded that location did not just provide the hosts with opportunities to showcase certain approaches, commitments and histories, but also for guests and delegates to protest those narratives. Amitav Banerji (Global Leadership Foundation) spoke about his rich experiences of organising meetings as part of his work as Director of the Political Affairs Division at the Commonwealth Secretariat. He contrasted the nature of Commonwealth ‘retreats’ with the large conferences and assemblies organised by the United Nations. Both speakers agreed that although different local and national settings have important consequences for the feel and outcomes of individual conferences (and the way individual participants experience them), overall the hosts of Commonwealth conferences did not institute a style of international conferences that sought to undermine the basic European conferencing model long used as a general yardstick. As Ruth Craggs pointed out, this was not coincidental, since postcolonial leaders attempted to establish and demonstrate their legitimacy by using established methods of exchange. The discussion centred around the importance of language, including the terms used to describe international meetings (where privacy and exclusion was desirable in the context of the Commonwealth ‘family’, but was seen as sinister in other contexts); the overlapping projects of the conferences by the Non-Aligned Movement and Commonwealth; the larger social life that went on around big conferences; and the matter of major figures and officials who haven’t left their archives behind.
The meeting concluded with talks on the history of Central Hall from Jenny Henderson (Events Manager, Central Hall) and Paul Moynihan (Archivist, Central Hall), a tour of the building and, for those with a head for heights, a climb up to the hall’s dome and spectacular views. Overall, the day was a welcome reminder to scholars of internationalism that local sites and the micro-fabric of international conferences need to be taken seriously by anyone trying to grapple with internationalism as a lived experience.
Summit photo, from left to right: Jessica Reinisch, Jake Hodder, Stephen Legg, Ruth Craggs, Amitav Banerji, Mike Heffernan, Sanjay Srivastava, David Brydan, Pete Docking