At the 61st annual BAAS conference and the 46th annual IAAS conference, our associations cemented alliances forged over recent years of renewed co-operation between members, writes outgoing IAAS Chair and IBAAS organiser Philip McGowan. IBAAS16 rearranged the usual order of things at BAAS and IAAS conferences (in more ways than one) to fit in its 95 panels and 300 speakers.
The last time BAAS and the IAAS held a joint conference, the vast majority of this year’s delegates at IBAAS16 were either undergraduates, schoolchildren or, quite probably, in day care. Stranmillis College had been the venue a quarter of a century ago: this time, Queen’s University Belfast stepped up to the plate to do the honours.
And what honours they would turn out to be. For three days and nights, the two associations cemented alliances and friendships forged over recent years of renewed co-operation between members, evidenced mainly in collaborations between our postgraduate and early career communities.
In the build-up to the conference, and for the days immediately following it, Twitter was ablaze with the #IBAAS16 hashtag as delegates documented their travels from across Ireland, Britain, Europe, the US, Asia and Australia. With the opening panels beginning at 11.00am on the Thursday, IBAAS16 rearranged the usual order of things at BAAS and IAAS conferences to fit in its 95 panels and 300 speakers. Sponsored by the Eccles Centre, Professor John Howard of King’s College London delivered his plenary on the American nuclear cover-up of the Palomares incident in Spain in 1966 ensuring the first day concluded with collective gasps and a general sense of disbelief that – who’d have believed it? – official branches of the American government had conspired with Franco’s administration to conceal the full extent of a B-52 refuelling accident above Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
Following John’s brilliant lecture, delegates made their way to Belfast City Hall where the opening reception (hosted by Belfast City Council) was addressed by the US Consul General in Belfast, Daniel Lawton, who recalled America’s particular relation with the city of Belfast and reminded those present that it was George Washington who had granted Consular status to the city 220 years ago in 1796.
Friday brought sunshine to BT7 and yet more international delegates who crowded the Whitla Hall as well as Queen’s recently refurbished Graduate School and the Peter Froggatt Centre for more coffee breaks, lauded lunches and the most diverse set of panels ever assembled at either an annual BAAS or IAAS conference. Before the launch reception for BAAS 2017 hosted by Canterbury Christchurch University in Queen’s Great Hall, Professor Deborah Willis of NYU Tisch School of the Arts amazed the assembled delegates with a photographic history of social movements in the US from Emancipation to Black Live Matter. The range of images shown during her Journal of American Studies talk was extraordinary and the conversation during that evening’s reception was dominated by what Professor Willis had managed to present to the conference in just about sixty minutes.
For those who attended on the Saturday, all four seasons made their appearance felt with bright morning sunlight giving way in the afternoon to rolls of thunder, coupled with falls of snow and hail. None of this deterred the IBAAS delegates intent on stocking up on their fix of American Studies panels and roundtables ahead of the closing events of this Belfast conference. In a slight alteration to the usual IAAS annual plenary, the Alan Graham Memorial Lecture, Richard Ford read from his work at Titanic Belfast: his hour-long reading and question-and-answer session was then followed by the Gala Dinner. Having attended Professor Willis’s talk, Richard elected to change his chosen reading: instead of presenting new material, he read the opening half of ‘Everything Could Be Worse’ from Let Me Be Frank With You to highlight the varied and nuanced issues alive in the discussion of race in the United States today and to ask what is the novelist’s role within this hugely contentious matter and how they can deploy the valencies within language to be productively provocative. 200 people crowded into the Andrews Gallery at Titanic Belfast: on the walls around them the first exhibition in the UK or Ireland by Guggenheim Fellowship awardee Larry Fink (he shares this notable honour with both Deborah Willis and Richard Ford) was on display alongside photographs by Richard Wade and Jo Longhurst.
The Gala Dinner was served in the Titanic Suite, replete with authentic replica Titanic staircase, and venue for the awarding of the annual BAAS and IAAS awards by outgoing chairs Sue Currell and Philip McGowan. Of particular note here was Ian Bell’s receiving of the BAAS Fellowship to mark his decades’ long dedication to the American Studies community in the UK. The official proceedings concluded with a toast to the memory of long-standing IAAS stalwart, former Chair, Secretary and Treasurer as well as former EAAS Treasurer, Tony Emmerson, who passed away in December 2014 but who had been eagerly anticipating what he rightly predicted would be a momentous event in the history of both associations.
Philip McGowan, Senior Lecturer in American Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, was the main organiser of the IBAAS16 conference which also marked the end of his five-year term as Chair of the IAAS. His research examines nineteenth- and twentieth-century US poetry, fiction and film; he is also interested in America’s history with alcohol and addiction.