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Oceania Newsletter 15, March 1995


Ton Otto

Centre for Pacific Studies, Nijmegen

Basel, Münsterplatz 19, Thursday 15 December. Around 8 a.m. a group of fourteen people meet in a seminar room of the historical building in which the Institute of Ethnology is housed. They are the board members of the European Society for Oceanists (ESO) who were appointed during the first European Colloquium on Pacific Studies in Nijmegen two years previously. Ample amounts of coffee are consumed to awaken sleepy minds. A formidable task is at hand: the constitution of the ESO has to be discussed and if possible accepted by the board, so that a proposal can be added to the materials which will be handed out to the conference participants, who will be arriving in great numbers later that day. Most board members have travelled long distances and everyone is happy to see the faces of old and new friends. After some time for socialising, the discussions are efficient and to the point with the result that by 11 a.m. a final version of the constitution is ready to be printed and copied. The constitution will give a formal basis for present and future activities of the ESO and provides for the election of a new board. It was to be submitted for approval to the general assembly of ESO members during the final meeting on Saturday afternoon.

Later on Thursday, conference participants begin to arrive. Most are obviously delighted by the scenic qualities of the environment in which the events of the coming days are going to happen. Registration occurs in the pretty Institute's building. Participants receive a folder with various materials concerning the conference and the city of Basel. The organisation appears to run smoothly. To support the chief organisers, Jürg Wassmann, Verena Keck and Ingrid Bell, a number of students and secretaries are involved in attending to the affairs of the conference. A well-prepared programme booklet reveals a full programme; in addition to several key-note addresses, 90 papers will be presented in 10 different working sessions. The organisers have worked very hard to get everything in place before the start of the conference and they deserve a great compliment for this feat. Everyone who has participated in organising a conference of this size will know how much work and cool-headedness are required for such an event to succeed.

The conference opens with a welcome drink in the Basel Museum of Ethnology with its world-famous collection of Melanesian artefacts. An Abelam ceremonial house forms a fitting background to this little initiation ceremony. After a while we are requested to move to another room for the formal part of the opening ceremony. The lecture hall in which we gather appears like a Western version of the Abelam spirit house: the portraits of many past scientists look down on the audience. In this awesome environment the conference really begins, after several words of welcome, with the keynote speech by Marilyn Strathern on the 'The new modernities'.

In the next two days three more keynote addresses follow in the same hall of fame. On Friday morning Robert Tonkinson engages the audience with a discussion of the effects of the Mabo court decision on Aboriginal nation-building and national identity and on Saturday morning Jonathan Friedman talks about 'Knowing Oceania or Oceanian knowing'. Friday evening a paper written by Sir Raymond Firth is presented by Michael O'Hanlon. All four keynote addresses are inspiring and serve their function well: to provide stimulus and direction to the discussions during the conference. After each speech a debate is initiated by (a) discussant(s) invited by the organisers to make some comments. Only the session on Friday night proved too late and too long. After a speech of an hour and comments by four discussants the audience was happy to call it a day.

While the keynotes give a conference a special flavour, its substance are the working sessions organised around central themes, in which the results of recent research are presented and discussed. Due to the large number of papers there were between five and eight parallel sessions at a time. This provides the conference participants with a wealth of choice but makes this choice sometimes very difficult. Whatever one chooses, one is likely to miss papers one would have liked to hear as well. The working sessions take place in several rooms in the museum and the institute and in other buildings nearby. The sessions run smoothly; in every room a student is present to assist with practical matters. Each chairperson also acts as a discussant to the papers. For some this seems like too much of an onus on one person and reactions are in many cases necessarily ad hoc since the majority of papers were not available beforehand. Nevertheless the discussions are generally lively, engaging and productive according to the chairpeople's reports during the closing session of the conference.

Following the closing of the conference a separate plenary meeting is held to deal with matters pertaining to ESO. One of the main issues is the formal adoption of the constitution, which is approved without much discussion. Then the voting system for the new board is explained. A motion to reappoint the sitting board by acclamation is rejected by the board members themselves. Their argument is that the ESO members who are not able to attend the meeting must also have a chance to suggest candidates and to vote. The following discussion about possible themes for the next meeting, the desirability of membership fees and other issues became somewhat chaotic. The meeting could have been better prepared by the board, but in the end no-one is really bothered: a motion to end the gathering is accepted with enthusiasm and in good humour.

The conference ends with a dinner in the stately Münstersaal. Food and wine are most enjoyable and some classical music is performed. It is time to reconfirm old contacts and to explore new ones. The atmosphere is good although some people give voice to their desire to have an opportunity to dance. Not long after midnight the meeting draws to a close but at least some conference participants continue their exploration of Basel cultural life well into the small hours of the night.

With some minor modifications the whole set-up of the Basel conference followed what has normally been discussed within the ESO board as the 'Nijmegen model'. This continuity with the first European Colloquium on Pacific Studies certainly has to be valued positively because it contributes to the development of a distinct ESO identity. On the other hand a discussion of this 'model' seems timely as the growth of the ESO appears to strain such a conference structure. The centrality of the chief organisers in almost all aspects of the conference certainly facilitates a smooth organisation but it also puts a great responsibility on these people. To give some of this responsibility to session leaders may be an alternative which could also enhance the chance of putting together session papers into a goof number of coherent volumes for publication. It seems also useful to think about ways to either limit the number of papers or to extend the conference time.

These considerations should not be taken as criticism of the Basel conference. The organisers can look back on an extremely well-organised and very successful event. They have also made a great contribution to the further development of the ESO by compiling the first directory of the members of this organisation and by organising the first official elections. Personally I am very pleased to see that the little seed we planted in Nijmegen has grown out to become a professional organisation of this size and I hope that the ESO will continue to grow and to flourish.

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