Writing on Hands

Why do we write shorthand notes to ourselves, or phone numbers we need to remember, or math equations we might need for a test, on the palm of our hands? How long have people been counting on their fingers? Where did the idea for spreadsheets come from? Why is palmistry such a compelling medium for self-examination? Why do kids prefer texting to talking on their cellphones?

In the Fall of 2000 an exhibition titled Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe opened at Dickinson College’s Trout Gallery in Carlisle, PA. The inspiration of art historian Claire Sherman and former Trout Gallery director Peter Lukehart – and the culmination of nearly a decade of research – Writing on Hands presented Early Modern images depicting the role of the hand in the creation of human memory and the acquisition of knowledge. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition was, and is, far more than a visitor’s souvenir – it is an original, inspired, and deeply engaging examination of a signature movement in Western cultural and intellectual history. What the exhibition and its catalogue made plain is this: the human hand has always been inextricably bound up in human knowledge and understanding. This fundamentally biological or anthropological fact about Homo sapiens is as true now as it was 500, or 4,000, or 50,000 years ago, despite the dizzying elaborations and complications modern digital devices and computer technology have introduced into our personal and social lives.

Handoc.com is now hosting the website that was originally created to complement the exhibition, animating concepts or practices that now seem remote or, due to language barriers, inaccessible: early anatomical studies, sight singing, counting with hands, memory theaters, zodiacal interpretations, and sensory response to stimuli. We think you will enjoy this wonderfully rendered digital overview of the exhibition, and suspect you will want to learn more about the artists, scientists, and philosophers who first saw the full implications of the hand for human life.


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