The Royal Society was this year presented with the Prince of Asturias Prize for Communication and the Humanities, received by the Royal Society President Paul Nurse at the awards ceremony in Oviedo on Friday 21st October. The Prince of Asturias Foundation offers eight annual prizes to individuals, entities or organizations from around the world making notable achievements in the sciences, humanities, and public affairs. The nominees for the awards have to be outstanding role models whose work or contribution is of unquestionable international standing.

Asturias award scroll and badge

The Prince of Asturias Foundation was founded in Oviedo on 1980, and its essential aims include ‘to contribute to encouraging promoting scientific, cultural and humanistic values that form part of mankind’s universal heritage.’ The awards (Arts, Social Sciences, Communication and the Humanities, International Cooperation, Technical and Scientific Research, Letters, Sport and Concord) are presented each autumn in Oviedo, and each recipient receives 50,000 Euros, a specially commissioned Joan Miro Sculpture, a diploma and an insignia.

Individual Fellows have also received awards, including David Attenborough (wildlife broadcaster), John Sulston (biologist), Stephen Hawking (Physicist), Antonio Garcia-Bellido (geneticist), Ramon y Cahal (neuroscience), and Severo Ochoa (biochemist). One of this year’s awardees for Literature (though not a Fellow) was Leonard Cohen, and a previous winner for Arts was Bob Dylan in 2007.

The award ceremony is considered one of the most important cultural events on the international agenda, and in keeping with this the Foundation and the Society came together to see how we could celebrate. The initial proposal was for ‘a case’ and some additional material on the history of the Society and its work, but this rapidly expanded to become a much bigger exhibition to celebrate our connections.

As this was the middle of September and the exhibition had to be up and running by 17 October, it involved researching (very quickly!) exactly what we did have relating to Spain, one of the Foundation’s administrators taking the time to come over and look at – and photograph – the material to take back to the curator of the proposed exhibition in Oviedo. One can only admire the large amount of research which had to be undertaken to produce a ‘story’ for the exhibition in such a short time, while, after the initial sorting of what could be used, we photographed and obtained condition reports for proposed exhibits, requested export licenses and arranged transport.

Photograph of volcano in Tenerife

It was astonishing how much there was; printed works included travellers’ accounts since 1552 and textbooks on astronomy, metals and maths since 1545. Archives included not only the election certificates of fourteen Spanish scientists since 1746, including Severo Ochoa, but also reports and accounts of journeys to Spanish territories such as Tenerife to examine the volcano and report on experiments carried out there since the 17th century, agreements to exchange scientific information and presents, even a letter from Cajal to Howard Florey on visiting Spain. 

All the items had to be packed and transported, and it is a tribute to the unflagging enthusiasm and care taken by the Foundation of its award winners that when the exhibits arrived at lunchtime on Sunday 16 October, where they were carefully unpacked, present were the Director of the Asturias Foundation, the Director of the University Library, the notary, the curator, the two staff of the Asturias Foundation with whom we had been communicating, the designer, and myself. Each item’s condition was meticulously recorded, and then the items lovingly put into their locations by the curator. It took until 10.30 that Sunday night to set everything up, and the appearance of the exhibition on Monday morning, ready for its first visit from a school party from the English School of Asturias, was very impressive.

Royal Society images in frames in the courtyard

A large banner announced the exhibition outside the huge wooden entrance of the 17th century building and looking through the two story high beautifully carved wooden doors there could be seen in the courtyard structures resembling enormous frames with some of the Society’s most stunning images hung in each to catch the attention and guide the visitor up the elegant stone staircase to the first floor, where a carpet with the Society’s timeline was laid along the corridor to the door of the library. This gave first sight of the 25 exhibition cases and exhibition boards (all text in both Spanish and English) between them, laid out in a rectangular galleried room with wooden stairs at each end, and the most wonderful smell of leather, paper and wood of an old library. An entirely appropriate setting for items which came from a 350 year old institution, and yet which celebrated scientific achievement, international interaction and development up to the present.

Exhibition in the library

A final comment; given the very short time available to produce this not so small ‘but perfectly formed’ collaborative exhibition, a huge thank you has to go to Tim Berners-Lee, both a Fellow of the Royal Society and winner of the Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research in 2002, without whose creation of the world wide web this international collaboration would never have been possible!

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