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What's this? A Charmed Life

Since July, a group of 8 brilliant volunteers have been involved in collecting information and memories from visitors to the museum about an intriguing object – a glove charm from Naples

As well as talking to people about the object and encouraging them to enter their thoughts into the iPads next to the object, they have been taking photos of the lucky charms our visitors have in their pockets.

Sze Kiu Leung - one of the volunteers - takes us through a selection of the charms.

During the past month, as part of the Collection People Stories project, we have been inviting our vistors (as well as our fellow volunteers) to share their special / lucky charms with us by letting us take a photo of the charm, as well as telling us a little bit of background information about it (e.g. what it is and why it's special).

  • Charm, This lady said this was a religious talisman given to her by her mother when she was a child. I have worn it ever since - I am now in my 30s. I lost it twice and went to big efforts to retrieve it and fix it!
    This lady said this was a religious talisman given to her by her mother when she was a child. I have worn it ever since - I am now in my 30s. I lost it twice and went to big efforts to retrieve it and fix it!


This lady said this was a religious talisman given to her by her mother when she was a child. "I have worn it ever since – I am now in my 30s. I lost it twice and went to big efforts to retrieve it and fix it!"

  • Charm, I have carried this everywhere for 20 years. It is the name of the sun in Egyptian. I would feel lost without it.
    I have carried this everywhere for 20 years. It is the name of the sun in Egyptian. I would feel lost without it.

"I have carried this everywhere for 20 years. It is the name of the sun in Egyptian. I would feel lost without it."

  • Charm, This is my motherâs wedding ring. Wearing it gives me a sense of closeness with my family member.
    This is my motherâs wedding ring. Wearing it gives me a sense of closeness with my family member.


"This is my mother's wedding ring. Wearing it gives me a sense of closeness with my family member."

  • Louise's lucky charm bracelet , It is made of beads which ward off the evil eye.
    It is made of beads which ward off the evil eye.


Volunteer Louise's lucky charm bracelet – it is made of beads which ward off the evil eye.

  • Roy's lucky glove, This is Roy's (aged 3) lucky glove. It is a golfing glove, but he likes to think it is his wrestling glove and likes to just wear only one glove on his left hand.
    This is Roy's (aged 3) lucky glove. It is a golfing glove, but he likes to think it is his wrestling glove and likes to just wear only one glove on his left hand.


This is Roy's lucky glove (aged 3). It is a golfing glove, but he likes to think it is his wrestling glove and likes to just wear only one glove on his left hand.

  • Tempe's lucky bracelet, She wears this for all exams, interviews dates etc. As a rule though she wouldnât say that she is superstitious.
    She wears this for all exams, interviews dates etc. As a rule though she wouldnât say that she is superstitious.


Volunteer Tempe's lucky bracelet – she wears this for all exams, interviews dates etc. As a rule though she wouldn’t say that she is superstitious.

  • Kieron's cap, He wears this every day and has a subconscious need to wear it, like a good luck charm.
    He wears this every day and has a subconscious need to wear it, like a good luck charm.

Volunteer Kieron's cap – he wears this every day and has a subconscious need to wear it, like a good luck charm.

What's this? What we know about the object

In July this year, we set up a new case displaying an object in our African Worlds gallery. Around the case were two ipads, into which our visitors can put their questions, information or memories about the object.

Lots of questions were asked about the object, so we asked our curator Fiona to tell us what she knows about the object.

This object is a mano cornuta, or 'horned hand' amulet in the form of a brown leather glove with white stitching, stuffed with pink wool to resemble a gloved hand.

The wrist is bound with a cotton thread to attach a twisted and knotted loop of string by which to hang it.

It would have been used as a charm against bad luck, probably hung from his barrow by a street seller. It probably came from Naples, and is believed to have been acquired by the Museum in the early 20th century from Edward Lovett, who was a collector of amulets.

Mano cornuta, or 'horned hand' amulets come in all sorts of material and sizes. In southern Italy, they are sometimes made of coral, amber, silver, and mother-of-pearl.

They are still sometimes used, and were once worn widely as a protection against the ‘Evil Eye’. This was the look given by someone wishing to cause a person injury or misfortune, usually a jealous rival, and it was thought that some such people could cause harm by glancing at you.

Making a gesture like the one formed by the glove, or wearing an amulet such as this one could offer some protection by diverting the evil glance.

Tomorrow, this object will be going back into our stores and a new object will arrive in the case in African Worlds. We hope you'll enjoy discovering the next object.

What's this? What our visitors are asking

Adrian Murphy - our Digital Media Manager - explains what we've been learning from our object case with iPad interaction in African Worlds.

In July this year, we set up a new case displaying an object in our African Worlds gallery. Around the case were two ipads, into which our visitors can put their questions, information or memories about the object.

We set this up as an experiment, so we could learn the different ways our visitors interact with technology, volunteers and to find out more about what questions they would like us to answer in our exhibition labels.

Two days a week, a number of volunteers stand by the case, ask our visitors questions, encouraging them to use the iPads and learn more about the object - an Italian gloved hand that is around 100 years old.

Matthew and Sze Kiu - two of our volunteers - have already blogged about what our visitors have been saying to them while they were working at the case.



Since the case was put into the gallery in July, our visitors have asked 898 questions.

Visitors can ask questions to the person who made the object, the person who uses it and our curator. Most questions were asked to the person who uses the object (379), with questions to the maker second (362) and finally our curator (157).

There is also a space where visitors can tell us something about the object - we received 329 pieces of information.

Top questions asked

The top 3 questions asked to the object's maker are:

  • What is it? What is it used for?
  • Why did you make it?
  • How long did it take you to make it?

Many questions asked to the object's user guessed at what its usage might be - the top 3 questions were:

  • What is it ?
  • What do you use it for?
  • What do you do with it?

The most asked questions to the museum's curator were:

  • What is this object?
  • How old is it?
  • Where is it from? Where did you get it from?
  • Why is this in the museum?

It might seem obvious, but from this, we understand that many people want a straight-forward type of information when looking at an object - what it is, where it comes from, what it is used for and why is it in this museum?

In addition to these frequent questions, visitors asked us many more questions - here are ten interesting examples:

  • Why is it in such a strange shape?
  • Do you make a lot of these objects? is this a special one or just standard?
  • Where is left glove?
  • Why did you give this to the museum?
  • Is your hand in it?
  • How do you know that this object works?
  • Do you think the use of iPads genuinely improves the experience and wonder of the museum?
  • How old is it and is it still used today?
  • How many years have you spent making it?
  • What type of person created it, working class or upper class?

What we've learned

In the section where visitors could tell us some information about the object, there were many different suggestions, hints and ideas given.

We learned that there was a connection between the object's gesture and spiderman's hands - something we definitely had not thought about before. Many visitors connected the gesture to the "rock on" symbol too, while many others suggested connections to other cultures - as Sze Kiu previously explained.

We also noticed that on the days our volunteers were by the case, visitors asked slightly more nuanced questions, having maybe learned a little by speaking with the volunteers.

We also saw that people asked questions about making to the user, using to the maker and all sorts of questions (completely unconnected to this object) to our curator.

Next month, we will be changing this object for a new one, and also changing the way the ipad screens work a little - so we can test a new approach for us. We hope you'll enjoy discovering the next object.

What's this? What our visitors are saying

Sze Kiu Yeung - one of our volunteers alongside our object case with iPad interaction in African Worlds - tells us what our visitors have been saying about the object.

As a volunteer on the CPS Engage Zone, my role is to support the museum in gathering information from the public about some of the lesser-known objects, by engaging and starting a dialogue with the visitors about the object on display - an Italian gloved hand that is around 100 years old.

Whilst we know that it is a charm against bad luck, we don't know who this was made by, who owned it, or if it was made for a particular reason.

In order to increase our understanding of the socio-cultural significance of this particular object, my role is to encourage visitors to share with us their questions, knowledge or memories associated with gloved hands, or good luck charms in general.

Over the summer, the display has attracted a lot of visitors, and we have had lots of conversations - here is a summary of some of the ideas our visitors have shared with us.

Guessing games

From clothing accessories (necklace, belt decoration) to back scratcher and air freshener, we have had some fascinating guesses about what the object actually is!

Many visitors have discussed with us the meaning behind the hand gesture (which is actually known as mano cornuto, the horned hand), and most thought that the object (and the gesture) had something to do with the devil's horns and would be used to ward off evil.

Other similar suggestions include something that farmers would use to keep away bad weather on a farm (like an Italian version of a horseshoe), or a relic of sorts. One group of visitors from the Philippines told us that the object reminded them of charms made from seeds of a fruit wrapped in red fabric which are then pinned on children for luck. One visitor thought the glove could have contained a real chopped-off hand, which could be hung outside a shop to deter people from stealing from it.

"Really, it's Italian?!"

As the object is located in the African Worlds gallery, most people we spoke to assumed it is of African origin, and were always genuinely surprised that it is in fact European.

Interestingly, not many visitors associated the object with Italy either. Whenever I asked someone to guess the origin of the object (by hinting that it’s a country beginning with an 'I'), Italy would always be the last country that people guess. Most guess India, Indonesia, Iraq, Iceland, even Ireland! 

However, visitors from Italy tended to recognise the object and the hand gesture more quickly.

One such visitor told us that, in southern Italy, men dressed in black would carry this in order to 'scare away' bad luck (or pass bad luck to others). Small charms like this can still be bought today.

A student from Bologna said the gesture would be used secretly - held against the leg, for example - in social situations to show that one person was saying something bad about another person.

A visitor from Genoa said that the gloved hand reminded him of strings of chilli peppers or garlic hung around doorways to ward off malocchio (evil eye); he went to to say that chilli pepper or garlic strings were more commonly used as charms than gloved hands where he came from.

One southern Italian visitor said the colour red is used to ward off bad luck, while another told us that people in Italy today often carry smaller red versions of this object, as a key ring.

Finally, a number of visitors who had been on holiday to Italy also recognised the gesture, having witnessed local people making this gesture in different situations, from during a case of road rage, to making this rude gesture in a jokey way between friends (seen in Naples). One visitor who had recently lived in New York recognised the gesture being used amongst Italians in the community.

One gesture, many meanings

Most people we engaged with seemed to be aware that one gesture can have different meanings/associations in different parts of the world, or depending on the context in which the gesture is used.  

Many of our young visitors would associate it with the web-spinning gesture made by Spiderman, while I have also seen people stopping by the object, making the gesture themselves and whispering "Rock on!" to each other before walking off.

More than one visitor had suggested that the gesture is perhaps associated with mudrā, a series of symbolic or ritual gestures in Hinduism or Buddhism; others wondered about possible Freemason or even anti-Semitic associations.  

Finally, we were also very excited to discover that this gesture is like the sign for 'I love you' in Japan (I myself own a doll whose hand makes this gesture!); in fact, it is also the 'I love you' sign in American Sign Language.

  • I Love You sign in American Sign Language, Wikimedia Commons
    , Wikimedia Commons

All in all, I've very much enjoyed the conversations I've had with our visitors - but more importantly, I hope it's been an equally enjoyable and refreshing experience for our visitors too.

Taming the Two-Slide Trombone

A delegation from the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust recently visited the Horniman Museum to examine a very unusual trombone. Classical Music Specialist Gavin Dixon contributed this guest blog to tell us how it went.

The One Handed Musical Instrument Trust (www.OHMI.org.uk) promotes the development of orchestral instruments that can be played with just one hand, and one trombone in the Horniman Museum's Collection has been adapted for just that purpose.

The instrument was invented by Eric McGavin, pictured above. McGavin was employed by Boosey & Hawkes from 1950 to 1970. He held a wide brief, overseeing the musical instrument museum at the company’s Edgware factory, playing an active part in instrument design, and leading a range of education programmes.

This double-slide trombone benefited from all these fields of expertise. Another instrument in the Horniman collection, a double-slide contrabass trombone was part of the Boosey & Hawkes collection that McGavin curated, and this may have provided an inspiration for his design.

The team assembled to examine the instrument included players, engineers and curators, and the morning was spent assessing McGavin’s solutions to the problems posed. The stand in the image above, which is probably a converted bassoon stand, does not survive, but from the photograph it is difficult to imagine how such an arrangement could be practical, given the forward and backward forces it would have to withstand.

Frank Myers, who is the Director of MERU, specialises in the design of equipment for use by disabled children. As soon as he saw the instrument he was coming up with his own ideas about how it could be harnessed and supported. So look out for his alternative design in the near future.

  • Experts assemble to examine the unsual instrument, Alison Balsom, Frank Myers, Stephen Hetherington (founder of OHMI) and Mimi Waitzman (Deputy Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman)
    Alison Balsom, Frank Myers, Stephen Hetherington (founder of OHMI) and Mimi Waitzman (Deputy Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman)

The trumpeter Alison Balsom was also present. She is an OHMI patron and has been advising on some of the brass instrument designs under consideration.

After our visitors had left, I couldn’t resist the chance to put the trombone through its paces. The 50-year-old slide was a bit creaky, and the double-slide arrangement only adds to the problem by increasing the resistance. Then there is the issue of the shortened slide positions. Anyway, excuses, excuses...I managed to get a tune out of it, just.

You can read more from Gavin on classical music and instruments at his blog, Orpheus Complex.

A VIP Visit to the Stores

Yesterday was quite a special day down at the museum stores. We got to welcome young bone collector Jake McGowan-Lowe for a special VIP tour.

Jake has been blogging about his bone collection for some time, and has received quite a bit of attention in the media. His visit was organised by Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Paolo Viscardi, who runs his own blog called Zygoma, and has been working with Jake to identify bones for some time.

Many of the staff have been following Jake on Twitter and are big fans of his blog, so we were all quite excited to meet him and his dad Nick. As it was #MusCake day, Collections Assistant Laura even contributed an appropriately-themed cake to celebrate!

  • Skeleton Cake, Cake by Laura Cronin
    , Cake by Laura Cronin

Jake started off his tour in the taxidermy hall, before heading to the 'bone room', where Paolo does most of his work, surrounded by the Osteology collection.

Jake has a rather impressive collection of his own, but it was fantastic to see him explore some of our most interesting specimens. You might remember this Lappet-faced vulture skull from our Tumblr blog.

Some of the museum's most interesting skulls were brought out for closer inspection.

Paolo shared some tricks of the trade, including the tell-tale signs which let you know which big cat skull you are looking at.

Jake also had a closer look at the entomology drawers, as well as a chance to handle specimens from the museum's fossil collection.

Huge thanks to Jake and his family for making the trip down from Scotland to see our collection. It is always fantastic to welcome special visitors to the stores, and a great chance to show off some of the objects which are usually hidden away.

Head on over to Jake's blog to learn more about his brilliant bone collection and read his own post about yesterday's visit.

Museum of the Year Judges visit the Horniman

We're very excited to be a finalist for the Art Fund Prize for the Museum of the Year. On Friday last, we were delighted to welcome the judges for their visit to the Horniman.

  • Art Fund judges meet our iconic walrus, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

  • The judges' tour beginning at the Clocktower, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Starting at the clocktower, we brought them on a tour along the front of the building which neatly shows our history - from Frederick Horniman's original gift to our unique learning spaces.

  • Art Fund judges exploring the Horniman, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

  • Art Fund judge Sarah Crompton exploring our music gallery, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan


The tour continued into the gardens, exploring our materials, food, dye and medicine gardens, highlighting how we're making connections between the plants growing there and objects in our collections.

The judges then had some time to explore our galleries and aquarium and meet some of our staff.

  • Art Fund judge Bob and Roberta Smith speaks with aquarium curator Jamie Craggs, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

  • Art Fund judges exploring objects in the Hands On Base, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

  • Art Fund judge Bettany Hughes looks at Art of Harmony exhibition with Mimi Waitzman, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Later, we explained what made 2012 such a special year at the Horniman: re-launching our gardens, the Body Adorned exhibition, the Big Dance Picnic, our Christmas Fayre, our project with Abbey Manor College - the list goes on!

To close the visit, we showed the judges this video made with our fantastic visitors who tell us why we're their museum of the year.


The winner of the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year is announced on 4 June.

Training Week at our Study Collections Centre

Before embarking on Phase 2 of the Collections People Stories project, over 20 Horniman staff members took part in a week long training programme at our Study Collections Centre.

For some participants this week presented a whole new set of skills and for others it was a helpful refresher.

Each morning we began with a dose of data management, with training on our collections database, called MIMSY.

It may seem easy to describe an object, but each object has so many elements to it, all which need to be documented thoroughly:. where it is from; what it is made of; who collected it; whether or not it has been conserved or indeed if it could be hazardous to your health!

The training week was also packed full of hands on training, skills that will be applied by our teams throughout the Collections Review.

We were shown how to pack the ideal box - who would have known that there are 4 legitimate ways to scrunch up that perfect paper wodge?

We also learned how to pack flat art for transport and storage and how to make our own Corex boxes for oversized objects.

Our Conservation staff held a session on textiles outlining the special care that needs to be taken when packing and storing costumes.

At other times during the week, we learnt how to accurately mark and measure objects. Physically marking stored collections is essential so objects can be tracked if they were to lose their attached labels. Accurate measurements are of course a must when planning for museum displays.

Although all Horniman staff pride themselves in always being on high alert for insects in the cases and cabinets around the museum, conservation staff gave us a Pest Control Refresher to keep us one step ahead of the critters.

One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that we will be taking photographs of every reviewed object. Our museum photographer did a sterling job in setting up the cameras and tents so that we can take excellent photographs. We learned simple tricks to improve the light, focus and texture when taking pictures of museum objects.

On the last of day of training our packing skills were put to the ultimate test in the all-important Egg Tossing Challenge. Eggs packed in a variety of materials found themselves being hurled with force through the stairwells. If the egg didn’t break, it was packed well!

I am happy to announce that only 2 out of 15 eggs did not survive the journey! 

What would you like on a postcard?

If you're passing through Gallery Square in the next few days, you'll have a chance to test an ipad app called WeCurate, which asks people to work together to select a shared collection of postcard images.

A small team of researchers from Goldsmiths University will be there to test the app. The research hopes to understand how doing digital activities together can lead to people being more actively engaged with cultural content.

Their project involves researchers from Goldsmiths University and Artificial Intelligence Research Institute, IIIA-CSIC, Barcelona, Spain and Institute of Research and Information, IRIT-CNRS, Toulouse, France, and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The dates that WeCurate will be in Gallery Square are: 26, 27, 28 November, 1 December (until 1pm), 2, 6 and 7 December.

Let us know on twitter or facebook if you had a go, and what you thought.

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