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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.