I go to Rio (with apologies to Peter Allen)

Q: How do you know you’re attending a conference in Rio?

A: The chair of the organising committee concludes his welcome address by urging all participants to “enjoy a caipirinha on the beach … at least once!”

Naturally I obliged (see accompanying photograph). However, there was more to my participation in the 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology (ICHST) from 23 to 29 July 2017 than Copacabana and cocktails! I attended a number of insightful and thought-provoking presentations: CBAP Project Visiting Fellow Bronwen Douglas’s paper ‘Place, Race, Genome: “The Polynesians” in Deep Historical Perspective 1756-2017’ was very well received, and a lively discussion developed around the nine papers in her session and the preceding two, all encompassed by the general rubric ‘International Circulation and Local Scientific Traditions. Human Diversity, Heredity & Races in the 20th Century: Latin America, Europe and the United States’.

My own paper, ‘Archaeological Encounters in Micronesia: Early German-language interpretations of the Nan Madol ceremonial complex in Pohnpei’, was one of five in the symposium ‘Conceptualising Encounters: “Science” in the South’, efficiently organised by UQ’s Peter Harrison and Daniel Midena. Topics in this symposium ranged widely, from Lutheran astronomy in New Guinea to mask collectors in the eighteenth-century Amazon to natural history as a genre in the ‘Aztec Encyclopedia’ (Florentine Codex), and the resulting discussion was correspondingly diverse.

As always at such super-sized conferences, it was physically impossible to attend every paper I would have liked to attend; many were scheduled at precisely the same time in different venues. However, a bit of fancy footwork and some shameless session-hopping did get me to great presentations on challenges and opportunities in building sustainable online knowledge resources (Ailie Smith), the epistemology and practice of field sketching in natural history in the mid eighteenth century (Luciana Martins), and Esperanto as a language of international science communication (Jan Surman).

A few further highlights:

  • Sujit Sivasundaram’s stimulating plenary talk ‘Islanding in the History of Science’
  • a convivial gathering of early career scholars interested in practising history in museums and cultural institutions (thanks to Emily Margolis and the Scientific Instrument Commission for facilitating this!)
  • a tour of the breathtakingly beautiful gardens and lovingly restored buildings of Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, generously organised by Ricardo Ventura Santos
  • Magnificent Frigatebirds and Black Vultures wheeling lazily above the rugged contours of the Pão de Açúcar

Of all the papers – well over a thousand in total – presented at this congress, only a handful touched on the history of archaeology: mine, Bronwen’s, Maria Pia Donato’s and Jean-Luc Chappey’s ‘Scientific travels, the circulation of knowledge and the French Revolution in global context: a second look on science, politics and empire c. 1780-1820’, and one I was particularly sorry to have missed, Marília Oliveira Calazans’ ‘A double genesis: The sambaqui [shell mounds] and the archaeology in Brazil in the 19th century’. There is thus ample scope for historians of archaeology to engage more actively in this congress, the largest international gathering of historians of science, technology and medicine. Colleagues: here’s to a stronger presence at the next ICHST in 2021!



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