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World created from toys in a tray of sand


From the collection of Margaret Lowenfeld, c.1920- 70s.
Tray: zinc toys: wood, moss, plastic, lead, other metals, paint

These toys were devised as an analytical tool by the English child psychologist and psychotherapist Margaret Lowenfeld (1890- 1973). They are a wide selection of small wooden and metal toys depicting various objects and people, including jungle and farm animals, trees, trains, cars and tiny figures grouped under the heading 'small people'. Lowenfeld was interested in questions of mental representation, and encouraged children to make scenarios out of the toys. She then interpreted these scenes in terms of the inner mental pictures that they suggested, and in particular in terms of their sensorial qualities. Lowenfeld's work resonates with up-to-date neuroscientific research, which indicates that memories, especially traumatic ones, are often triggered by visual and other sensory stimuli.

Scientific efforts to understand mental processes (whether conscious or unconscious) have a history that stretches back at least to the 18th century. Psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy represent three major branches of this enquiry. But much art has also attempted self-consciously to probe the workings of the mind. See if you can find the contemporary artworks by Katharine Dowson and Chris Dorley-Brown in the Medicine Now gallery.

Science Museum, London

2009-15 (tray), 2009-14 (toys)

This will be on display at Wellcome Collection between 8 March - 17 April 2011