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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

17th Century Frame – Decorative Stones

An intricate 17th century frame object detail

As part of her Illuminating Objects internship, Natasha Gertler has written a series of blog posts for The Courtauld Gallery’s Blog.  Read about her journey to the final display in the following blog posts.


More Than Meets The Eye

Read about the Courtauld’s Baroque frame and how XRF spectroscopy was performed on it 
Find out more


Observation, Connoisseurship And A Bit Of Detective Work

POSTED ON MAY 30, 2017
Read about decorative stone identification and Natasha’s collaboration with Dr. Ruth Siddall 
Find out more

Collaborating With The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Read about Natasha’s collaboration with Monica Price and her trip to the Oxford Museum of Natural History
Find out more


three people working on the installation of the venetian glass bowl in the Courtauld's gallery

The Courtauld’s newest instalment is finally ready and has now been sitting proudly on display for over a week. The Venetian bowl (I have become accustomed to calling it ‘my’ bowl) is small but a lot of time, consideration and work from many people has gone into its display. From Sacha Gerstein’s curatorial eye to Graeme Barraclough’s experience as a conservator, Colin Lindley’s mount-making efforts and many more, the one tiny bowl had a lot of fantastic people working hard behind it, including my own research!

I arrived bright and early on a beautiful sunny day at The Courtauld on the day of the installation. Due to works being carried out on the galleries lifts, the glass case had to be physically carried up the flight of stairs to its new home. However, this was luckily the last hurdle the project had to make before being completed.

After some adjustments to the mount, and the application of new lettering and positioning of text labels, it was time for the bowl to be installed. The chalcedony glass that makes up the bowl has a fascinating quality of glowing bright red when a bright light is shone directly at it. Because of this, we wanted to get the lights in the case at just the right angle to produce some of this for visitors to see.

Another difficulty was how to angle the bowl. The inside of the bowl has a milky pale green colour, nowhere near as beautiful as the swirling patterns on the outside, which is much more interesting to look at, and relevant to the bowl’s history. This faced us with a small problem, because short of displaying the bowl upside down (in which case it would cease to look much like a bowl), one side of the cabinet was going to have a view of the inside of the bowl.

In a last-minute change (quite literally, just minutes before the glass hood was secured into place!) we decided to try turning the bowl round by 90 degrees. It sounds silly, but having the bowl side-on wasn’t something that had occurred to us! This way, both ‘viewing’ sides of the case, where the text panels are, get a brilliant view of the bowl’s exterior.

And with that, we ushered ourselves out of the gallery as the first members of the public arrived for the day.

The whole process of completing the Illuminating Objects internship has been eye-opening to a whole world I had never truly contemplated before. It has been hard work, but also fascinating, and immensely rewarding.

Thank you to everyone at The Courtauld (and beyond) who has given their time and assistance to this project. Special thanks to Sacha Gerstein for her guidance and expertise, and for giving me the opportunity to take part.

Decisions Decisions 

two female students examining the adventurine bowl

It is now time to select my object to illuminate!

Perhaps embedded with a genetic interest for ceramics, I had initially thought about selecting some albarelli, earthenware pharmacy jars, some of which are already on display in the Courtauld. These objects were ceramic, something I had a childhood relationship with, and had a clear link to science – I had even studied pharmacology as part of my undergraduate degree.

Maybe it was because the link was just too clear, but, already a little out of my comfort zone in an art gallery, I thought I might as well jump in the deep end with a beautiful Venetian glass bowl.

I can admit that I was initially drawn to the bowl for shallow reasons – it is beautiful glass swirling with browns and greens and small inclusions of deep caramel sparkles – rather than knowing anything at all about glassware. In fact, I was completely in the dark, but armed with a folder on the object’s history and details, I began working my way into writing on Venetian glass. I soon discovered the names of the two techniques that gave the bowl its stunning aesthetic appearance – calcedonio, which is a type of glass that gives swirling colours, and aventurine, the golden sparkles.

As my research continues, I hope to be able to enlighten myself about the processes of glassmaking, as well as the culture surrounding the craft in the 18th century. Eventually, I will be able to call myself an expert on this very small area of art history, and look forward to sharing this newfound knowledge with the visitors of the Courtauld Gallery.

Introducing Eleanor

Eleanor Magson standing in front of the venetian glass bowl in the Courtauld's galleryThe Courtauld Gallery is one of the last places I would have guessed I would be working, if you had asked me a few years ago. At this time, a pharmaceutical or neurological laboratory would have been more in line with my expectations. But, after three years of degree study in Biomedical Science, I decided life at the lab bench wasn’t for me and I turned myself over to the humanities for a degree in Science Communication, in order to share my love for science with the public.

As the child of two potters, my journey down the science pathway was a bit of a breakaway from my artistic side, but it wasn’t long before I became interested in communicating science through art, as a way of reconciling my two (often opposing) interests.

It was soon into my Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College that the opportunity to apply for the internship at The Courtauld arose. Although I had done a piece of research on the use of enriching the teaching of science with arts and humanities, I had no experience of enriching art with science.

The Courtauld, like all galleries, provides information on the historical context to their objects and paintings, which can often include social, religious and political context, but science is not something seen within many art galleries.

I wanted to bring out not only the technical science of the creation of my selected object, but also the effect of the state of the scientific world of the time on the object. Scientific discoveries fuelled how we looked at the world, often having huge influences on the development of societies.

Keep an eye on the Gallery blog to find out more about my Illuminating Objects project.

Researching The Guro Loom Pulley: An Anthropologist In An Art Gallery

Woven indigo Cloth

With a background in the anthropology of craft work in West Africa and having spent time in a weaving workshop in Ghana, choosing the Guro loom pulley as the focus of my research at The Courtauld was relatively straightforward.

As a tool used to make cloth, I was familiar with the way the loom pulley may have been used by weavers and I knew something about its place within a wider West African context of textile production and carving.

Photograph of a Guro Indigo Cloth.

The project’s challenge then has been communicating what I know as an anthropologist, first to my art historian colleagues in The Courtauld Gallery and then to a wider public.

The process of researching the pulley and presenting it for display has involved translating anthropological ideas into something that will make sense in an art gallery or museum.

Anthropology is a discipline that is based on intensive fieldwork, usually with a specific group of people, and often during a particular period in time. When anthropologists speak about what we know we are quite careful to say that our knowledge is partial and does not necessarily hold true for all places and times.

One of the main issues I faced in researching the pulley was that most of what we know about Guro weaving and carving comes from fieldwork carried out in Côte D’Ivoire relatively recently.

Like many African objects collected by connoisseurs throughout the 19th and early 20thcenturies that have subsequently ended up in gallery collections, very little is known about the actual circumstances in which this particular loom pulley was made, used and sold. Without this historical context, we are forced to rely on research carried out with Guro craftspeople in the past few decades.

Despite undoubted continuities between past and present, when working like this we have to be wary of assuming that nothing has changed in the ways objects are made and used. Although there will be a resemblance between the way a decorated loom pulley was made by Guro carvers in the 1980s and how a similar object was carved a century before, techniques, style, materials and the skill of craftspeople all change over time.

My challenge has been to look at what experts in both African Art History and Anthropology have had to say about Guro craftwork and come up with an interpretation of the loom pulley which is true to both disciplines, but that will also (and probably more importantly!) engage someone who is new to the wonders of African Art.

The job of translating current day anthropology into the past is not an easy one and I don’t know how well I’ve done- I suppose only the gallery visitors can be the judge of that!

Installing The Next Illuminating Objects

A retorti and a fili filigree detail

In a series of blog posts, postgraduate intern Victoria Druce (MSc student at Imperial College London) looked behind the scenes to give an insight into how she researched the filigree glasses.

It was an early start at the Courtauld Gallery for the installation of the new Illuminating Objects display on the 24th July, collecting together the mount maker, case designer, label designer, curator and intern (that’s me) to put on display the third instalment of this year’s Illuminating Object series.

Over the past few weeks, having collected together my research and decided on an angle for the display, I have been writing the labels and web text for the projects. Both the texts were a real challenge – the word count for the labels is tiny at just 150 words each! Condensing my research into such a small space whilst keeping it engaging and interesting is a real skill and much of it had to hit the cutting room floor. My first attempts were twice the maximum limit and it took a lot of clever editing to shrink them down to size. The web text is a little longer and will hopefully give any curious visitors to the gallery or the website a bit of extra detail about the background of the glasses which are on display this summer.

Along with the finished labels, the mount and blocks for the display case were collected together this morning for the installation. It was the first time we’d seen the glasses in their case but after a little tweaking of spacing, the glasses looked great in their case. The lighting gives both the glasses a beautiful glow which lights up their exquisite detail. The goblet sits on a block to stand above the wine glass and together they make a maximum impact as visitors walk into Room 4 of the gallery.

After weeks of research, a meeting, talking with experts, experiments, writing, re-writing and final touches this Illuminating Objects project is drawing to a close. Many thanks go to Suzanne Higgott at the Wallace Collection for her expert help throughout the project and to Collin Brain for his insight into the science of lead glass. Also thanks to the gallery’s chief conservator Graeme Barraclough and to Kate Edmonson. Finally, thanks to Sacha Gerstein for her help and advice during the project.

Researching the glasses

Selection of Filigree Glasses
Selection of Filigree Glasses. Photo credit: Victoria Druce

9 July 2013

The shelves of the V&A’s study collection are full to bursting with glass upon glass sitting silently on the shelves. They make for a dazzling display. My research for the glasses I am presenting for display took me to the V&A’s glass room. I scanned the rows of glasses from the time periods I am interested in: the 16th C and the 18th C. The Venetian style glasses are exquisite in their cases, some of the stems styled into intricate works of glass art depicting seahorses and hearts. The English 18th C glasses in comparison are less fanciful and sit more soberly in their own case. Their stems are delicately patterned by air twists or enamelled patterns that are unimaginably complex and catch the eye of the gallery’s visitors.

As well as visiting other collections and scouring art history books I have been deciphering academic science journals to uncover the secrets of the objects I am displaying. We have also carried out some of our own scientific tests on the glass. With the help of conservator Graeme Barraclough and conservation student Douglas Maclennan we analysed the composition of the glasses by X-ray. The results confirmed what my research has already told us, so it was great to know I’m on the right track!

With all my reading, researching and testing I have busily compiled lots of information that I will use to interpret the objects. The culmination of the research I have carried out will be in the crafting of the exhibition labels and the online content, which I hope will bring the objects and their histories alive for the galleries real and online visitors.