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Moving the Merman

You may have noticed that our famous Merman now has a new home. You can find him in his own case at the back of our Natural History Gallery.

The Merman used to be displayed in our Centenary Gallery. The Centenary Gallery closed last month as we began our exciting anthropology redisplay project. We have been decanting all the objects on display in the Centenary Gallery and taking them to our stores, where they will be processed by our Collections Team.

You can see a video of some of the team decanting some of the objects from our Centenary Gallery here.

Our Senior Workshop Technician, Alistair MacKillop, tells us how they created a new case for the Merman.

‘The Workshop were asked by the Learning Team to place objects from the Centenary and African Worlds Galleries in cases around the Museum so that schools could still follow trails and find these objects.

We thought the old vivarium case, at the back of the Natural History Gallery, would be a good place to house the Egyptian artefacts, as it had lighting already installed.

  • Moving the Merman, Artefacts from Ancient Egypt, including this mummified crocodile, can be found in their temporary home at the end of the Natural History Gallery near the Merman.
    Artefacts from Ancient Egypt, including this mummified crocodile, can be found in their temporary home at the end of the Natural History Gallery near the Merman.

  • Moving the Merman, This mummy mask is also on display in the Ancient Egyptian case.
    This mummy mask is also on display in the Ancient Egyptian case.

The problem was, it was still full of tanks and pipes where our lizards and snakes use to live. So we set to work clearing the case and building an insert case in the same style as the cases we had already designed for the Natural History entrance redisplay.

  • Moving the Merman, The redisplay at the entrance to the Natural History Gallery was the inspiration for the new case display for the Merman.
    The redisplay at the entrance to the Natural History Gallery was the inspiration for the new case display for the Merman.

It was such a success that when we were asked to think about the relocation of the Merman, it seemed a great opportunity to use the other end of that case. We wanted to make sure the Merman looked special, and by creating an aperture into a small case in a matching style to the Egyptian end, I think we achieved our goal.

The Merman had been out with our ‘Object in Focus’ outreach scheme not so long ago, so it seemed like a good idea to use the mount created by my former colleague Rebecca Ash. The mount consists of brass bar that has been brazed together with silver solder, the mountmaker works directly with a conservator to determine the best shape to give support to the object. The Merman has a very unusual balance point and is also very fragile. Of course, the mountmaker’s art is to then design a way for the mount not to be seen or be too obvious to the viewer.

This mount was filed and sand-blasted to remove any sharp edges. Then sprayed grey, we apply a sticky backed conservation felt that we call ‘Fluffy’, to any surface of the mount that touches the object, this prevents any rubbing and gives a comfy fit to the object.

I attached the mount to a painted plinth which can be moved on top of the case plinth, so we could find the best spot for the lighting and the balance of the finished look of the case.’

Our Exhibitions Officer, Lindsey, gathered together information and research about the Merman and edited the text for our graphic panel, which was then designed and produced by our Graphic Designer, Stew.

We think the Merman looks great in his new temporary home at the end of the Natural History Gallery. Pop by for a visit and say hello.

Potty about Pots

There's been a fantastic discovery for the archaeology world today in Cambridgeshire of a Bronze Age house. Many of the finds may not seem that stunning, there's not really any gold nor even any bronze (that's a whole other blog post), but some of the most important finds were pottery.

  • Bronze Age pottery from Cambridgeshire, BBC News− © Cambridge Archaeology Unit
    , BBC News

Pots are essential for many archaeologists as ceramic can survive millennia (unlike materials like wood and textiles) and are less subject to looting if they do not contain precious stones, although this isn't always the case as the recent Red Lists from Syria show.

Pots can help with our dating of history, civilisations and ultimately how we have developed as human societies.

They come in a melange of shapes and sizes from the Ancient World, and we have a few gems in the Horniman Collection.


One of the most famous Mediterranean pot types, this vase was used to mix wine and water in the Ancient World. This one comes from Sicily, but was made in Greece. Pots like this help us map the movement of people around the Mediterranean, suggesting trade links between places such as Sicily and Greece.


Another Greek made pot, they are characteristically flattish with two handles either side to facilitate lifting, or perhaps to be hung in somewhere (bit unlikely as there's a stand, but you never know). The function of these pots isn't entirely certain, usually they have designs showing marriage scenes or women at their toilette. However our one just has a figureless repeating pattern, perhaps this had a more generic use?


Amphora come in a range of sizes from large Panathenic to the smaller Type B, like this one here. Type B amphora (archaeologists aren't especially original with names) have a smooth 'echinus' foot, that means the base of it slopes down without a lip. This pot could have been made between 7th and 5th century, oddly it's listed as 'Ptolemaic' online, which is a bit misleading as that is an Egyptian period and this pot is Greek, but you get the idea.

I am also not sure this depicts the Judgement of Paris, as there are supposed to be 3 goddesses, one hero (Paris) and Hermes (male God), the other two males (on the right) are a mystery...

Oenchoe or Oinochoe

Another wine drinking vessel, these are staple of the pottery corpus and some are very old. The name means Wine (oinos) I Pour (Cheo), and they are found across the Mediterranean. I really love this object, it is decorated with two large water birds, perhaps geese or swans, in brown and black paint.

So never snub the humble pot, they have lots of different uses and designs, helping us make new discoveries every day.

Protective charms and scary curses

We had some visitors to the stores today; the son and grandson of Rev. Lionel Weeks who is one of my favourite collectors. He was a Baptist missionary in the Democratic Republic of Congo and particularly interested in local magic, or ju-ju as he called it.

A charm protecting you against lightning 

We have 5 whole boxes of magic from him, including charms to protect you from lightning, to make people forget debts that are owed, and to help with fertility. We even have a pretty odd looking ‘witch stick’.

Remind your friends to pay you back!

This charm helps you with fertility

It’s certainly the weirdest wand I have ever seen.

What an odd witch stick...

As we stood there poking about, it dawned on me that we were in fact surrounded by magic from all over the world, and not all of it friendly. I knew that two aisles down to the left sat a small Congolese Nkisi with the power to run about at night and give you a nasty disease should you offend it.

A Congolese Nkisi


Rev. West’s son, Arthur, was standing right in front of a shelf where I’d recently stumbled across a Sierra Leonean staff covered in human jawbones and a few rows down was an Ecuadorian shrunken head, or Tsansta, which is so dangerous it was recently described as being akin to a hand-grenade in the wrong hands.

A Sierra Leonean staff

As Rev. West’s Grandson, Richard, inspected a large Congolese knife, all I could think of was the Tibetan T'un-rva ram’s horn that is filled with magical substances and can be hurled at an enemy with disastrous effect.

A witch bottle

I began to freak out a little bit. But then I remembered that three aisles to the right, on the bottom shelf, in a small cardboard box and wrapped in many layers of acid free tissue paper, sat a tiny witch bottle. According to the label, its careful use can cause a witch with bad intentions to wee uncontrollably until she repents. It made me feel much, much better.

So magic comes in bad or good, and isn't that what Halloween is all about?

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. 

  • Glove protective charm, Mano cornuta, or horned hand amulet in the form of a brown leather glove with white stitching. Used as a charm against bad luck.
    Mano cornuta, or horned hand amulet in the form of a brown leather glove with white stitching. Used as a charm against bad luck.

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).

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, A religious talisman.
    A religious talisman.

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

  • Charm, Egyptian hieroglyphs.
    Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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

  • Charm, A wedding ring.
    A wedding ring.

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

  • Louise's lucky charm bracelet , A charm bracelet.
    A charm bracelet.

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.

  • Roy's lucky glove, A lucky glove.
    A lucky glove.

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.

  • Tempe's lucky bracelet, A good luck bracelet.
    A good luck bracelet.

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

  • Kieron's cap, A lucky hat.
    A lucky hat.

What would you consider your charm? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook by using the hashtag #Horniman.

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.

What's this? Volunteers and visitors' voices

Matthew Edwards tells us about his experiences as one of our volunteers alongside our object case with iPad interaction in African Worlds.

I’ve been volunteering at the Horniman for 6 months as part of the Engage programme. Having studied History of Art at university, with a particular leaning towards world arts, muesology and anthropology, I leapt at the chance to become part of the Collections People Stories project.

I am one of a team of volunteers who are on hand to chat to visitors about their responses to a showcase object that is currently on display in the African Worlds gallery and to get them to enter these insights and questions about the object onto the ipads.

People approach the conspicuous tardis-shaped case as they meander through African Worlds. On the case’s side is a question: 'what's this?' This invitation, combined with the ipads and mysterious object in the case are an irresistible draw for people to discover more. Visitors are met by a small stuffed glove in the shape of a mano cornuto, supported in the case by a wire frame.

Reactions to the glove have been varied and interesting. Some visitors are underwhelmed, some find it creepy and others simply don't know what it is.

But after a moment’s reflection, or a brief chat with a volunteer, visitors start stroking their chins, mimicking the gesture of the glove with their own hands and begin to make all kinds of interesting deductions that offer us insights into their own beliefs – collective, cultural and personal.

When we suggest that the glove may be a kind of charm, we discover that many apparently unrelated people and cultures have correspondences in their use of charms and superstition. Some visitors have even been kind enough to show us their own charms and talismans which volunteers are documenting in a photographic series, which will be blogged about soon.

When it comes to finding out more concrete facts about the object, however, some visitors are frustrated by the lack of information offered by the ipads and the volunteers, and, as one of the faces of the project, I can feel a bit cruel for having enticed visitors in with the promise of knowledge, only to ask more questions.

I think this project is wonderful as it facilitates face-to-face discussion between people around our collection. The display and the use of ipads put the visitor at the centre of the discovery process and without the influence of context and provenance, people are more willing to make personal connections with the objects. People’s opinions, questions and insights (all – for better or worse) are put to our museum team via the ipads, giving us an insight into what people want from their museum experience and enriching the museum for all.

I’m looking forward to exploring our next object with our visitors soon.

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