Category Archives: Research

Playing and Art Galleries

Selection Process 

We spent some time with various objects in the store room during the selection process. Each object provided a different perspective to view art therapy with and endless questions to explore. In the spirit of our training and the clinical skills we developed, we hoped to keep our ideas open and to flow to allow for the unknown rather than jump quickly to interpretations and categorisations of the objects. Out of the six we selected, the bronze bear was the object which gave us the most space to be open and play with the project. The bear also encouraged us to bring into discussion concrete examples of creative art therapies incorporating objects in sessions, such as sand-tray therapy.

Clockwise from left to right: German pearwood pyx 16th Century; Russian amber casket late 17th Century; French Enamel Pyx 13th Century; Bronze ornament in the form of the bear 206BC-220AD;  1963 Bronze casting of The Scream (Le Cri) by Auguste Rodin, 1886.


Through play, children learn about the world and their part in its unfolding narrative. Play forms a crucial part of early development as it improves social skills and physical and emotional well-being. Children learn how to communicate and collaborate with others. This illuminating objects internship was the first of its kind, as two participants worked together. As we narrowed the object down and decided to make a play-themed display utilising a sandtray, we knew we should be playful throughout this internship and create as much opportunity to experiment and play with the bear.

First Experiment

Matthew Thompson, the Courtauld Gallery’s technician built us a prototype tray to fit the dimensions of the display cabinet in the Courtauld Gallery, which Danny and I roughly measured. Usually, sand trays are longer and broader, but the wooden prototype worked just fine for experimentation. Set up in the workshop, blue paper lined the bottom and sides of the tray, and we poured some kinetic sand, often used in sensory play, into it. Immediately my instinct was to sweep my hands through the sand, which was cool to touch and absorbent. Danny improvised by making a model of the bronze bear out of cardboard to perform its duty, as we could not access the store room where the bronze bear was kept safe that day.

We spent some time moving the sand around the base of the tray. I had the urge to press down the sand around the edges of the tray, creating a pool or open terrain for the bear to stand on. The calming sensation of moving the sand around and the contained environment of the tray – a little world in itself – opened me up to play and try things out. We looked around the room to incorporate other objects for the bear to interact with. In an early experiment, Danny placed another object from the Decorative arts and Objects collection concerning the bronze bear, a German pearwood pyx. This was to demonstrate the imaginative ways of relating using any object or figure in sand-tray therapy. To play the Pyx, we found a glass jar which I filled with sand and submerged into a sloping landscape.

After this experiment, we realised that although the porous nature of the sand is a powerful way to contain feelings, it would be a damaging environment for the ancient bronze bear due to its dampness. We had to find drier sand and determine whether the bear could exist in the sand tray or needed other objects to relate to, like the Pyx.

Written by Isabel

Second Experiment 

By this experiment stage, we had realised the need to introduce other elements into the sandtray. We were initially hesitant as we feared another object might take the focus away from the bear or potentially complicate the narrative we were trying to establish. When further considering what shade of blue to paint the interior, attempting to make a faithful reproduction of a box that play therapists would use. Matthew suggested that the colour blue could be referenced in the use of other objects; we could take an object such as a cave or another object resembling a lived space and paint that blue. The object appearing to suck up all of the blues we mused would be a playful nod to the use of transference in a therapy session. The finished display might straddle the need to make something life-like and conceptual.

We had also created blocks to use, a reference to the images of Margret Lowenfield working in the 1930s and decided to manipulate paper to resemble lived-in structures. These experiments did not initially appear fruitful as we realised the paper constructs looked clumsy or odd against the refined bear. The cave I had ordered also arrived late, so I could not apply the coat of blue. To further compound these feelings of disappointment, the child ( who was wise, kind and curious beyond his years) informed us that bears do not live in caves. The inner critic in me decided to stir and slither around looking for opportunity; my wise self intervened, however, and advised me that anything was possible in sand tray therapy. Why can’t the bear live in a Cave? By the end of the session, we felt no closer to deciding the final arrangement. Still, we considered expanding on the blocks, diversifying the shapes and introducing other cave-like ornaments.


Written by Danny

Third Experiment

After deciding the paper was too messy, we wanted to play further with the idea of a cave or a base for the bear. It took the form of blue wooden blocks Matthew made, a plastic aquatic form Danny discovered in his local pet shop, and a more obvious plastic cave structure which could be used in sand-tray therapy sessions originally for model games. The blue blocks reminded our Courtauld colleague Martin of the educational play materials developed by Friedrich Fröbel called ‘Froebel gifts’.

In the tray, Danny and I played with different iterations of home bases, tumbling ruins or remnants of places. We found the blocks leaning on the edges of the tray or becoming submerged in the sand intriguing. Stark forms like bridges, walls, barriers or hiding places became possible options for us. We created a circle with blocks around the bear, which reminded me of conflicts in how humans have used bears in different contexts – as symbols of strength and courage yet so often forced to perform for human entertainment and the harsh realities of the animal’s captivity. The circle figuration in the sand tray also reflected a response image Danny created if our second reflective art-making session. This experiment was generative, and I felt like we had various options for the display, reflecting our training as art therapists. We considered how leaving the final display idea open and spontaneous can reflect the true spirit of sand tray therapy. I also wondered whether wanting to keep options open was a way to hold off deciding on the display and what I felt about the experiment process and its resolution.

Written by Isabel

Final Experiment and install 

As the final opportunity approached, we were distinctly aware that ‘time was running out. We had yet to decide on the final arrangement and had missed the opportunities to play due to our clinical placements taking up more space. Admin and a half-finished website were skulking around the corner. Cinematically we both arrived late to the gallery in the morning, which appeared to deprive us of precious time. If anything, this was a blessing as it meant we needed to be assertive and focused in the time spent.

Upon arrival, Sacha Gerstein, the curator of sculpture and decorative arts at The Courtauld and Matthew had created a structure that mirrored elements from our previous round of experiments but connected it to the immediate environment by recreating an archway, seen in a neighbouring painting. Keeping this in mind, we continued the experiments by moving the blocks to the middle of the tray. I started making a structure similar to what had been constructed previously, but we all realised it was too geometric and rigid. Isabel kindly took over and created a structure that appeared to incorporate the cave-like elements from our previous weeks, the archway and much more. It sat somewhere between existence and ruin, form and function, the symbolic and the actual. I added to this l by pressing blocks into the sand, attempting to submerge them and scattering grains of sand over the blocks. After some discussion and reflection, we unanimously decided that this should be the final arrangement as not only was it visually pleasing. But inhibited the notion of play and was ripe with symbolic material and opportunity. It appeared to sit well in the space naturally, and a part of me connecting with the object was curious if it had found what it was looking for.

We returned a few weeks late and installed the final display. The final arrangement of the blocks was tweaked slightly to create a bit more distance between the blocks and the bronze bear, which we all felt worked better visually.

Written by Danny

Installing the Beakers

Final display of glasses and books

In writing this last blog post, I’m finally bringing my wonderfully long Illuminating Objects internship to a close; my second object, the pair of Zwischengoldglas beakers are now installed in The Courtauld Gallery and await the grand reopening on 19th November.

One of the main starting points for the display was thinking of my own practice in terms of my physical art space/studio/work table and thinking of the workspace as an art object, which brought subsequent discussion of a still life working environment, with tools of research and tools of fabrication. The idea of capturing something mid-process allows the visitor to have a fluid interpretation of the piece. We wanted to contextualise the era of early 18th-Century Bohemia, where the glasses are from, with a composition showing how we imagine its history in terms of an alchemist’s studio or an elite post-hunt drink. We used the objects as vehicles for story-telling and created threads to feed the visitors’ interest, whilst also emphasising the role of the accidental. This hopefully gives a little feel of what we were initially thinking with the display.

In September I met with Sacha and Matthew to install the scene of narrative objects in the 18th Century room. Their new home was to be a beautiful new case in a simple glass structure, which you could walk all the way around and view from different angles of the room, which was perfect.

Firstly, a conservation report is done before the beakers are installed so that there is a record of exactly what condition they are in. Then another one will be done afterwards to make sure that nothing has changed. This was also where I saw for the first time the Victorian collector’s archival sticker, which had been taken off one of the glasses (and preserved as a document belonging to the object) so the smiling hare could be seen properly. The sticker had been placed onto some delicate paper and was a beautiful object in itself!

What seemed to be quite a simple process actually took slightly longer as we played around with the positioning of the objects a couple of times. I had photos ready of where to place the pieces but we found whilst in the room it was important to get every angle right depending where the viewer would be entering. For example making sure the glass could be seen well in front of the window, the hunting scene on the beakers showing the specific part we wanted at the top and not underneath, arranging the drawing, books and beaker to look natural but not block the best view, seeing the hare peeking out, no loose threads on the velvet and even how the velvet draped on the surface. There was a lot more decision-making on the install day than for the silk fragment in the Science Museum. There, the design and material of the mount had already been thoroughly modified, tested and made before the install, and, the case was against the wall, so there were fewer decisions left to be made.

We then finally settled on a change from the original scene format. Bringing the beaker on its side with the plum velvet to the front and the standing cup to the back. It was great to have one final collaborative workspace around these objects with Matthew and Sacha. It was the right decision and as we all stepped back, moved around, that was it. I couldn’t believe how good it looked finally in its place. It looked better than I expected from my photos of testing it out in the storage room with Matthew. All that is left is the label to be added to the front, which when writing also came as a new learning curve of how to add all the objects to the text tombstone!

I’m so pleased with how it all came together and particularly with this last object the creative freedom I was given and how we managed to convey that in the display whilst fitting into The Courtauld’s new gallery space. I am going to miss getting absorbed and engaged into my research and work here, the collaboration with Sacha, Matthew and Katy and just the whole eye-opening process to the world of art history and galleries. Its been a rewarding experience and I am going to take many of the new skills I learnt here into my practice of design, to hopefully design and make better.

I hope viewers are intrigued by it, move around and look from all directions to see something different each time. I look forward to seeing what people think of these beautiful beakers within this display!

Final Display case of Glasses

How ‘conjecture’ is involved in selecting the next object

The whittling down has begun. As I found myself with four beautiful intriguing objects in the initial research I finally got myself down to two, with further insights leading me to think about these objects in terms of science and design and the possibilities surrounding them.

Close up images and drawing of a painted piece of fabric
Scarf, 1914, Jock Turnbull, Omega Workshops, T.1959.XX.1

One of the first things I looked at was the piece’s construction – is it even a scarf? Who labelled it as this? The selvedge, an edge produced on woven fabric during manufacture that prevents it from unravelling, is seen here on both sides of the fabric. There is one raw side and one finished side that has been machine-stitched but also has some hand-stitched or basting stitches running along its edge. This suggests it is the width of a piece of fabric, torn away and experimented on, in other words, a fragment. The design is playful, the colours bleed into one another and there are some water damage marks. But the damage almost integrates with the bleeding design and adds to its wear and tear effect. This suggests to me the idea of the Japanese aesthetic known as Wabi-Sabi – where the aesthetic is described as one of beauty if an object is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is very delicate and moves beautifully when held up. As it is silk, there is a slight shine to it that ripples in the light and creates a translucent effect. Viewed horizontally it may be reminiscent of an aerial view of fields and swimming pools. But viewed vertically, it can be interpreted as more abstract, possibly more free of the viewer’s suggestion.

The piece tells a story of material culture of the time with it being made at the outbreak of the First World War as well as being just after the Arts & Craft movement, with how it encapsulates a changing moment of how artists related to technology. The art critic, writer and artist  Roger Fry founded the Omega Workshops in 1913 partly as a reaction against the machine-made. I was also reminded of the ‘Unbound Exhibition’ at Two Temple Place, and I have been thinking about how women collectors of textiles in this period were looking at the social and cultural importance of textiles through imaginative collecting. This piece was given to the Courtauld gallery by Winifred Gill, a craftswoman and social reformer. I have been reflecting how textiles often have to fight for their place amongst the more established visual arts. Textiles are part of our everyday life. They are familiar but powerful objects. 

Goldzwischenglas Cups, c.1720-40, Bohemia O.1966.GP.168

photo of golden glasses and hand holding glasses with a drawing

These are a pair of faceted goldzwischenglas beakers, basically gold sandwiched glass, which is an exquisite technique of a double glass, in which the first glass is decorated in gold leaf with the second glass precisely fitting in to sandwich the gold leaf in place, making one cup. The technique was developed during the Roman Empire and was revived in Bohemia and Austria in the 18th century, which is where these beakers are from.

The design all around shows a stag hunting scene. A running hare is seen on the base of each beaker.  The bases are constructed separately from the glass cylinders and are of red lacquer glass. The two cups are very slightly different in their narrative illustration. In terms of personal taste and design I wasn’t drawn to them for their luxurious gold look, as I prefer items more rough around the edges but I was drawn to them for their delicate illustration and size. Upon closer inspection and discussion with the gallery’s technician Matthew Thompson, whilst he was in the storage unit and I was at home on my laptop, they really began to be quite the conversation piece, literally and metaphorically. They are functionally an everyday object, a glass, a cup or beaker, hand-held and used for liquids. Such beakers were conversation pieces for wealthy collectors, therefore I am imagining them being used whilst discussing the day’s hunt. They are faceted all the way around, making a confusing, blurred, double-image effect, which can be quite distracting from the scene when initially first looking at them. You lose the visual quality of the glass, and are experiencing the image in front and the image behind at the same time depending on the light behind them.

How would they change with different coloured liquids in them perhaps? They are very rich for a designer to explore. We can also continue the narrative by hunting for our meaning within the piece. Are we chasing more than the stag and the hare? This double-image effect almost becomes 3D upon rotation, like a dream sequence or an early period moving image. They become something more than this exquisite technique, an immersive environment of telling a story through different backgrounds, different liquids telling the same story in a completely different way. What if we flattened the image down to become a story board, how would the story enfold, how would the story begin? With its intriguing link to chemistry and glass-making this is an object with many creative possibilities.

The varying ways in which I have engaged through the project over lockdown have brought me to these two wondrous objects. I am very excited to delve further into the specific research for the final chosen one!

Extended selection process – a reflection

A hand drawn image of the four objects being held at different angles

Having trained for 3 years in Bespoke Tailoring at London College of Fashion, followed by working for 3 years at different designers and now studying for my Masters in Design: Expanded Practice at Goldsmiths, I was thrilled to learn about my acceptance for the internship Illuminating Objects at the Courtauld and Science Museum. 

I look at construction and making as part of design. I come to the Illuminating Objects Internship in a different context from previous students due to the current pandemic. While I will select my object entirely through a computer screen, I have been utilising my design background to examine these objects creatively. I have been drawn to objects in the collection which can be described as fragments, and to the narratives they enclose or inspire, exploring conversations that may arise from them, through gestures of movement and touch. The idea of fragment is a starting point in thinking how these objects relate to today’s material culture. Although both touch and ‘real life’ viewing have been removed from the internship thus far, I  will use my design skills and my interest in drawing to connect with and understand the pieces I have selected for display. In contrast with previous internships, this one will have a strong focus on the process of selection itself.  The eventual chosen object will be on display at the Science Museum in 2021.

My practice stems from being drawn to certain materialities. I make/design because I find the object, the point of intrigue: the rusty button, the hanging scrim cloth, the found dug up clay. I draw because I see the movement in the cloth on or off the body and where that can lead to in a design. I am particularly fascinated by even the word ‘object’ – the aesthetic look of it, the sound of it – which is what initially drew me to the Illuminating Objects Internship. With my course often looking at material libraries and the material processes in a scientific manner it seemed a wonderful opportunity to express these research threads. You can view more of my work here.

The whole process from my interview, to how I’ve been working has been a fully socially distanced process, from not being able to physically meet new people or see the storage areas or learning facilities, to not even entering the Science Museum. While this might have brought initial slight sadness, the internship is also focused in its digital platforms to showcase the process, and limitations I have found can often bring more interesting insights and pursuits. Along with guidance from the two curators at the Courtauld and Science Museum and the Courtauld’s gallery technician the conversations at our weekly meetings have offered a wealth of knowledge and inspiration leading down different paths for the objects.

I have always been interested in working for a gallery within this design frame, looking at how objects are displayed. When viewing other objects, I feel that taking an inanimate ‘dead’ object and displaying it in its own right gives it a specific a way to be viewed aesthetically rather than for purpose. With the object eventually being displayed at the Science Museum, it will bring a whole new concept to me in terms of the sculptural frame where my object will stand, compared to an art associated gallery format.

In light of the current circumstances, I have been able to have a longer selection process which has been wonderful. From scrolling through many image files and document files, your eye really starts hone in on the type of things that its drawn to and the type of language that spikes interest in the object documents. Because of the scope of the collection I was initially drawn to the backs of objects; their markings, their faded colours, their shapes correlating to the object itself, their almost minimalist artistic manner.

Notebook pages with Object Document files and photos of the backs of objects Notebook page of a mood board of a series of objects from the courtaulds collection

I have gradually narrowed down my search to four objects. The scarf, the fragment, the cups and the drug jar.

Objects that could be seen as fragments, or overlooked pieces, seemed to be the direction I was drawn towards but with a focus on the object’s everyday use within our material culture and how their narrative in the design could be obscured. Last week Matthew, the gallery technician, was able to go to the museum stores and show me these four objects through a video call. Holding, hanging and turning the objects around delicately, we discussed elements of the objects individually and then together. Seeing the fragment on its edge was beautiful, the bright colours of the scarf I was not expecting, the mirrored effect of the cups and the illustrated costume on the drug jar. It was so lovely even just to see a hand in a glove touching them, particularly within our pandemic context where touch and physical contact have been removed. It really brought new questions and conversation points to the objects. I was physically able to see them from different angles and how that changed their aesthetic appeal. I will be bringing these ideas together towards a design question for my proposal.