No talk and all play

22 February 2011

 Photograph of drawings on cardboard by "Richard". Wellcome Images
[object Object]

Photograph of drawings on cardboard by "Richard". Wellcome Images

A current exhibition at the Science Museum highlights some intriguing objects from the history of psychiatry. We sent guest blogger James Poskett to find out more.

Anna O named psychoanalysis her ‘talking cure’ and the technique soon came to evoke the classic image of a patient lying on the couch. But how can a ‘talking cure’ treat those who cannot speak? Children in particular often lack the vocabulary or may simply be too young to talk.

The Science Museum’s latest special exhibition, Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious in Everyday Life, curated by Catarina Albano (also responsible for our current First Time Out project), features a number of items deposited with the Wellcome Library and reveals how leading psychoanalysts adapted their theories to give children a voice.

A set of pencil and crayon drawings made by eight-year old ‘Richard’ in 1941 tell a particularly vivid story. Richard, one of Melanie Klein’s patients, appears acutely aware of the war surrounding him. The first drawing depicts an underwater scene in which a Nazi U-boat, complete with swastika, stalks a British frigate. The drawings then progress through a conflict in which ships are engulfed by tentacled sea-monsters whilst aircraft battles rage on overhead. In one Klein notes ‘Result: Germany 3, Britain 1’. She later explained how each figure represented a family member for Richard: the U-boat his father and the frigate his mother. Richard drew himself as a little fish, always somehow caught up in the conflict, fleeing from his father whenever he approached his mother.

Donald Winnicott also used drawings to ‘talk’ to children. In the 1950s he invented a ‘squiggle’ game in which he would draw a wobbly crisscrossing line on a piece of card. His patient would then respond in some way, by drawing their own squiggle, or rejecting the offering. Four of these drawings are featured in the exhibition, each requiring different input from the viewer. The first drawing is entirely abstract in form, a wavy blue line enclosed by a C-shaped arc, whereas the last drawing, clearly an animal of some kind, is an uneasy mix of reality and imagination.

These objects let us see for ourselves the raw material from which leading psychoanalysts drew their conclusions, as well as illustrating how nursery-style play became a serious form of therapy.

The theme of play is most striking in the objects from the Science Museum’s psychology collections associated with another pioneer of child psychotherapy: Margaret Lowenfeld. Where Freud had the couch, Lowenfeld had the sandbox. In this, and surrounded by toys, children would reveal their inner worlds. Lowenfeld’s toys can also be found on the Brought to Life website which includes an original sandbox created by a nine-year-old girl in 1955. We are confronted with two rows of antagonistic figures, including armed soldiers, yet Lowenfeld reports the little girl describing the scene as a tranquil summer’s day.

In the exhibition, these objects of play are set alongside others: from the everyday, such as a pair of satin gloves, to works of art, such as a fairytale-inspired pot by Grayson Perry. We are invited to consider our own reactions to each and, whilst we cannot reach out and touch any of these fascinating objects, we can do the next best thing: talk about them!

Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious in Everyday Life runs at the Science Museum until April 2 2011.

James Poskett is a recent graduate of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge.