By Michelle Damian
ACUA Associate Member

One of my favorite things about academia is going to conferences. Finding “your people” at these gatherings can be one of the most energizing aspects of the field. I love the chance to reunite with friends, listen to colleagues get excited about their projects, get new perspectives on well-known subjects, and be introduced to unfamiliar places, topics, and research approaches (and I have learned to budget enough money and suitcase space to accommodate a couple of circuits around the book room). For me, one of the conferences that brings “my people” together is the Asia-Pacific Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage (APCONF), which most recently took place last November. 

The pandemic years have challenged conferences everywhere, and the APCONF was no exception. Originally supposed to be held in-person in 2020, the Taiwanese hosts of the conference (Bureau of Cultural Heritage (BOCH), National Taiwan Ocean University (NTOU), and National Museum of Marine Science & Technology (NMMST)) eventually chose to have a hybrid conference in 2021. While it may seem as though the switch to an online conference should have been an obvious one, the APCONF has long been concerned with accessibility issues. Many of its constituents live in areas with limited bandwidth for internet access, and the option to hop on Zoom simply isn’t always there. On the other hand, COVID travel restrictions limited who could actually be physically present in Taiwan. And so eventually the hybrid conference welcomed about one hundred participants in person, and approximately an additional two hundred online (I was among the latter, so no book room excursions for me this time!).

The 2021 conference theme was “The Maritime Cultural Landscape of the Austronesian Diaspora,” and sixty-four people presented papers. Topics were wide-ranging, including maritime cultural landscapes in prehistoric Japan, maritime vocabularies from a study of a 17th c Spanish-Chinese dictionary, heritage management techniques for Austronesian stone fish weirs, and representations of maritime heritage in video games. The proceedings were recorded and are available on the APCONF’s website.  Written proceedings for the first three conferences (2011 Manila, 2014 Hawaii, and 2017 Hong Kong) are already available on the Museum of Underwater Archaeology and the 2021 proceedings are forthcoming.

This year the APCONF committee was honored to announce two posthumous awards for notable achievements in maritime archaeology. The first was presented to Sheldon Clyde Jago-on, who was the Curator of the Archaeology Division and a former Officer in Charge of the Maritime and Underwater Cultural heritage Division of the National Museum of the Philippines. Ricardo Favis, who served for two decades at the UNESCO office in Bangkok and oversaw the Regional Capacity Building Programme on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, received the second.

For me, one of the most exciting things about the APCONF is just how truly international it is. APCONF 2021 participants came from thirty-four different nations from all over the world, ranging from Pakistan to Palau, South Korea to Spain, and China to Canada. It is perhaps one of the best opportunities that I know of to experience such a cross-cultural range of projects and people in one room (virtual or in-person). The collaborations that result from this kind of exchange are impressive. At this APCONF participants spoke about African maritime traditions in Asia, how Iberian technology transfer in the 16th century shaped Javanese and Malay ship construction, and see how a single ship connected Japan and the Netherlands in the 19th century. These kinds of research projects so effectively remind us of how the sea has indeed been a connector, not a barrier, and brings far-flung corners of the world together through our shared maritime heritage.

Unlike an organization like SHA, the APCONF has no official membership body associated with the conference. It therefore relies on the generosity of sponsors and volunteers to make the conference happen.[1] Sponsoring institutions for this conference in addition to the host institutions included the Underwater Cultural Heritage Association of Taiwan. The conference’s enduring concern over accessibility also has resulted in earmarking a significant portion of these funds to support those who may not otherwise be able to afford to attend the conference, including (but not limited to) early-career scholars and graduate students.

The 2021 APCONF was co-chaired by Dr. Bill Jeffery from the University of Guam and Dr. Hans Van Tilburg from NOAA, and Dr. Brian Fahy. The onsite liaison was Dr. Chiau Wen-yan from the NTOU. Especially considering all the pivoting needed to deal with the challenges presented by the pandemic, their hard work helped ensure this conference could not only proceed smoothly, but grow to welcome over double the number of participants from the first APCONF back in 2011. The APCONF welcomes volunteers both for the organizing committee and the hosting committee, so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you are interested in getting involved in the conference planning process.

  The South Korean National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage has kindly volunteered to sponsor and host the 2023 APCONF. Calls for sessions and papers will be forthcoming on . We would love to see you all in Korea! Be sure to leave time in your schedule to connect with old and new friends and colleagues, and some room in your suitcase for new reading material to bring home with you.

[1] I have written elsewhere in more detail about the pros and cons of this form of organization for the APCONF. See Damian, M. “A Retrospective on The Asia-Pacific Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage.” International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies, Vol.17, No. 2.

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