UK university returns century-old gesture by gifting books to Smithsonian

The University of Leicester returned a 100-year-old gesture from the Smithsonian during a ceremony to cement the institutions’ transatlantic partnership.

The University of Leicester and the Smithsonian Institution signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in October 2022. Delegates from the UK university met with their US counterparts from the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, to acknowledge their continued support on the MoU in a signing ceremony in Washington DC, on Tuesday 23 May.

At the signing, Leicester Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, handed over a collection of books which represent the University’s ground-breaking research in areas of space, health, and heritage, as recognition for the Smithsonian’s support during the University’s founding years.

The book handover came almost 100 years after the Smithsonian donated seven volumes of C.G. Lloyd’s Mycological Notes and the 1924 Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, to the newly formed University of Leicester.

Prof Canagarajah said: “In 1925, Leicester was a fledgling institution that was being offered support by the relatively older Smithsonian, which was then approaching its 80th year.

“Now, almost a century later, we are delighted to return the favour with our book donation, which marks the continuation of knowledge exchange between the two institutions.”

Tuesday’s ceremony saw the UK and US teams announce they will collaborate in the Leicester’s Institute for Digital Culture, which was formed in November 2022, partnering with the culture sector globally to support its adaption to a digital world. The Memorandum of Understanding describes the Smithsonian’s role on the Institute’s board, and how the two organisations will work together to co-ordinate on research opportunities and develop new staff exchange and joint fellowship opportunities.

Prof Ross Parry, Director of the Institute for Digital Culture, said: “The books we gifted not only look back to that moment a century ago when the Smithsonian showed support to our young university, but they also look forward to the scholarship we will continue to carry out together.

“One of the books in particular captures this scholarly collaboration between us. The new Dictionary of Museology, published this year, is a landmark work by the International Council of Museums – a reference for all museums globally. In this latest edition, the definition of ‘Digital’ that appears is one written by us here at the University of Leicester, but importantly shaped by the collaborative research that took place between Leicester and the Smithsonian on a series of collaborative projects between 2021-2023, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (in the US) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (in the UK). And so today, the museum world’s definition of ‘Digital’ is one built by the knowledge exchange between Leicester and the Smithsonian.”

Attending the MoU signing was American archaeologist, Jorge Zamanillo, who has a foot in both Leicester’s and the Smithsonian’s camps.

Jorge earned a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, and is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino, which Congress established in December 2020.