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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.