Play Well

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Stockport, 1966 – Shirley Baker

Extended by popular demand until 13th April 2020, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Play Well explores the lives of children, societies, historic toys, games and contemporary designs to try to work out why humans, both young and old, play. More broadly, the exhibition asks what does “play” mean and why is it important? With the help of a group of 5 – 11-year-olds from Argyle Primary School in Camden, Play Well examines the significance of play in childhood and its importance in education, social development, emotional resilience and physical wellbeing.

Research over the years has revealed that play is essential for learning about the world as well as having fun. There is also evidence the urge to play is not exclusive to humans. Animals, both domesticated and in the wild, have been observed playing. Polar bears have been caught on camera sliding down snowy hills on their stomachs and a monkey was filmed looking after a rock as though it was a baby or a doll. The concept of play is not something that is learnt, it is an instinct, however, it does require the right environment to be beneficial.

Philosophers, psychologists and educators have researched the value of play in education and, although there are many differing opinions, many think encouraging children to explore the world through their actions can be as good as or even better than formal teaching methods. One man who believed this was the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852). He described play as the “highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul”.

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Friedrich Fröbel

Fröbel began his career in education in 1805 at a secondary school in Frankfurt where he learnt about the radical ideas of the educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Pestalozzi’s motto was “Learning by head, hand and heart” and he believed that every aspect of a child’s life, including play, contributed to their education. Inspired by these ideas, Fröbel went on to found a Play and Activity Institute in 1837, for which he later coined the word kindergarten.

Kindergarten, a German phrase meaning “garden of children”, reflected Fröbel’s belief that children should be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden”. Women, who were trained by Fröbel, opened kindergartens across Europe and the concept eventually reached the USA in 1856, although was conducted in German until 1870.

“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.”
Fröbel, Sonntagsblatt (c.1840)

For use in his kindergarten, Fröbel developed educational play materials, known as Fröbel Gifts (Fröbelgaben). These were used alongside other aspects of his child-centred approach to education, including singing, dancing and gardening. The Gifts were physical items children could play with that had educational benefits. Fröbel initially developed six gifts but they were eventually extended to twenty. Each focused on a different age group.

Gift one, intended for babies, involved soft balls of yarn in red, yellow, blue, purple, green and yellow. By holding, dropping, squeezing, rolling and hiding the balls, children developed an awareness of spatial relationships, movement and colour. Gift two, for one to two-year-olds, consisted of a wooden cube and sphere. Fröbel recorded children’s delight in discovering the sphere could roll but the cube would remain where it was placed. Gift three (2-3 years) also involved wooden cubes. This time, children could use eight small cubes to piece together a large cube or create another shape. Gift four (2-3 years) involved rectangular shapes that could also create a cube when placed together. Gift five (3-4 years) included a mix of cubes and rectangles and Gift six (4-5 years) introduced triangular prisms.

Further Gifts included tiles (Gift 7), rings (Gift 9), drawing slates (Gift 10), paper cutting (Gift 13), paper weaving (Gift 14) and paper folding (Gift 18). These gifts have influenced the many educational techniques that are still in use today, for instance, building blocks and alphabet blocks. Yet, it is not only education that these Gifts affected; they have been a source of inspiration to architects and artists.

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Seaside Resort in the South of France – Paul Klee, 1927

Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) were exposed to Fröbel Gifts as children and the geometry of the building blocks stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Wright was given a set of Fröbel blocks when he was about nine years old. “For several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and, among other things, played upon these ‘unit-lines’ with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod)—these were smooth maple-wood blocks. All are in my fingers to this day.”

Fuller recalled that it was Gift 19 that had the greatest effect on him. “The teacher brought us some toothpicks and semi-dried peas, and told us to make structures… I tried to make something that would work… I found the triangle held its shape when nothing else did.” Fuller went on to popularise the geodesic dome, a structure made up of triangular shapes.

The Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) also grew up with Fröbel’s philosophy. He adopted geometric shapes and patterns into his work and went on to work at the Bauhaus, a revolutionary school of art, architecture and design. Many teachers at the school were familiar with Fröbel and used his ideas in their teaching.

Although Fröbel’s kindergarten still exists today, other methods of teaching have been developed. The 20th century has been named “the century of the child” due to the amount of research and focus on childhood, education and play. In 1914, sisters Rachel (1859-1917) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) set up a nursery school for children of poorer families, which focused on both education, play and health. Children from impoverished families who were too young to go to school, often spent the day playing in dirty gutters, picking up all sorts of illnesses. Not only did the McMillan’s nursery provide a safe place for the children to play, but it provided a healthy environment too. “Once inside the child comes under the influence of the great healers, earth, sun, air, sleep and joy… the buildings should face south or south east, and in order to have this, the line of the rooms or shelters must be straight, the walls at either end shaped in butterfly form to catch all the sunshine possible.” (Margaret McMillan, 1919) Unfortunately, Rachel died three years after the opening of the nursery, so Margaret renamed it the Rachel McMillan Nursery School in her sister’s memory.

A similar type of establishment was set up in northern Italy during the aftermath of the Second World War. Named after the village in which it was founded, the Reggio Emilia Approach allowed pre-school children to learn through play, which in turn helped them come to terms with the war they were born into. The Reggio Emilia Approach has since spread to other countries, however, their principles remain the same:

  • Children must have some say over what they learn; additionally, the senses play a big role in the learning process.
  • Children must be able to touch, move, listen, see and hear in order to fully process something.
  • Children are encouraged to interact with other children and explore the world through material items and relationships.
  • Children should be encouraged to always express themselves and be given infinite means and opportunities to do so.

By the early 20th century, a connection had been drawn between children’s emotional health and play. Children had been left orphaned or traumatised by the First World War and had no way of processing their feelings. British pioneer of child psychology, Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973), began to study child behaviour, eventually setting up the Children’s Clinic for the Treatment and Study of Nervous and Difficult Children in Notting Hill, London in 1928, later the Institute for Child Psychology (ICP). By studying how children play, Lowenfeld developed the Lowenfeld World Technique, a type of therapy that allowed children to express themselves through play rather than words.

For her research, Lowenfeld conducted individual sessions with children during which she would record how they played. An example displayed in the Play Well exhibition was a world a troubled child created with farmyard figurines. The child was prone to outbursts and violence when he first met Lowenfeld, however, processing his thoughts by creating imaginary scenes helped him work through his feelings and gradually become more sociable.

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Squiggle drawings

Lowenfeld was not the only psychiatrist to notice the connection between play and emotional wellbeing. Donald Woods Winnicott (1896-1971) trained as a child psychoanalyst during the 1920s and served as consultant paediatrician to the children’s evacuation programme during the Second World War. During this time he observed that mothers had the greatest impact on their child’s development. Anti-social behaviour developed when a child had not experienced the “mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding…”

Winnicott also observed that play was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. He noted that play did not necessarily need to involve the use of toys or objects but could be similar to the ways adults “play” by making art, participating in sports, telling jokes, having hobbies and so forth. From this observation, Winnicott developed the “squiggle game”.

The squiggle game was a “game with no rules” which involved both Winnicott and the child’s participation. First, Winnicott drew a shape on a piece of paper, then the child would add to the “squiggle” to turn it into a drawing. Winnicott would also allow the child to make the first squiggle, which he would then finish off. After this, doctor and patient would talk about the drawings, creating stories that would often reveal insights into the child’s life.

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Play Lab

Due to the research by Winnicott, Lowenfeld, Fröbel and other psychoanalysts, play was declared a basic human need in 1989 by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nations have since been obliged to provide spaces for children to play and many schools, nurseries and kindergartens use play-based learning. To make sure children of low-income countries, often those affected by war, could access safe areas to play, the Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) committee established Play Labs, designed to ensure that vulnerable children aged 2–6 years were provided with a safe place for healing through play.

Now partnered with Lego, BRAC Play Labs have been established in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda. Over 7000 children have been given the opportunity to play and to learn, including those in refugee camps. Whilst these labs are only for younger children, research suggests the experience they have will impact on their whole development.

After looking at the psychology of play, the Wellcome Collection went on to explore what play looked like in wider society. The simplest form of play is imaginative role-play, which allows children to assume different identities. This can be acted out by a child on his or her own, or within a group, often in the school playground. Other playground games involve chanting or singing, using lyrics that date back several decades. Familiar songs include Oranges and Lemons and A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea.

Throughout time, children have played with inanimate objects, for instance, sticks. As shown in the picture book Not A Stick by Antoinette Portis, a stick can easily become a horse, a sword or a dragon when given a little imagination.

Of course, for the past few centuries, companies have been producing items specifically for play, such as teddy bears, dolls and toy cars. Over time, however, these have become associated with particular brands and stereotypes. Lego, for instance, which probably stems from Fröbel’s gifts, was initially suitable for both boys and girls. In more recent years, however, Lego attempted to make sets specifically for boys or specifically for girls.

Lego is not the only franchise that is guilty of this. Toys like Barbie and Action Men are targetted at specific genders. In 1993, activist Igor Vamos tried to emphasise how ridiculous or even dangerous teaching children to believe these stereotypes could be by founding the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO). Allegedly BLO infiltrated Toys R Us and switched the voice boxes of 300 Barbies and GI Joe dolls, making GI Joe say things like “My desk is a mess,” and Barbie, “Vengeance is mine.”

Specific franchises have even taken away the need to be imaginative. Toys based on films, for example, encourage children to act out scenes they have seen on the screen rather than create their own. With companies competing with each other for sales, these types of toys are eradicating the more traditional dolls and toys of by-gone years.

Researchers have begun to suggest toys, such as Barbie dolls, can lower a child’s self-esteem. A Barbie doll is not a realistic representation of a human, nor is a heavily muscled Action Man. Since these dolls have become iconic, it is not easy to change their appearance. Instead, campaigners are now focusing on the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the toy market.

In 2015, journalist Rebecca Atkinson founded #ToyLikeMe, a creative collective that called on global toy industries to start positively representing disabilities. Since then, franchises have begun producing toys that would resonate with over 150 million disabled children. Barbie and Playmobil are just two of the companies involved. Today, children can play with Barbies with prosthetic limbs, figures in wheelchairs, a diabetic Incredible Hulk toy, a monkey with hearing aids and dolls that are blind, bald or suffering from conditions such as vitiligo.

Children’s behaviour and ways in which they play remains a topic amongst researchers today. Despite the increase in gender-specific and franchise-specific toys, psychoanalysts still believe children need the opportunity to challenge themselves physically, emotionally and mentally through play. London based artist Eva Rothschild (b.1971) set up an experiment that allowed eleven boys between the ages of 6 and 11 to explore an art exhibition in which normal gallery rules were forgotten.

Rothschild installed replicas of her contemporary sculptures at Chisenhale Gallery, East London and instructed the boys to enter the room and look with their eyes for a long as possible, after which they could touch the exhibits. A video of the experiment is shown as part of the Play Well exhibition. Initially, the boys were cautious, refraining from touching anything for many minutes. After some time had passed, some of the boys got restless and began egging each other on to be the first person to touch something; as soon as one person had, they all began to touch. Once again, they were fairly gentle but as soon as one sculpture collapsed, the boys became more violent and, soon, nothing was left standing.

Unfortunately, there are a limited amount of opportunities for children to act as freely as the boys in Rothschild’s video. Societal rules, health and safety concerns and fears have hindered children’s freedom to play.

“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.”
– Marjory Allen

In postwar Britain, it was not uncommon to find children playing on the streets. Many children, left unsupervised by busy parents, found themselves exploring bombsites, turning them into unconventional playgrounds. Photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) documented the street culture in working-class areas of Greater Manchester between the 1960s and 80s, revealing that children were still playing outside on the pavements, unconcerned about the dangers of strangers or vehicles.

Adults, however, were becoming increasingly aware of the risks children faced on the street but did not want to prohibit the freedom to play. As the cities and towns became more urbanised, children were limited as to where they could play, so a playground movement was organised to create specific areas for children. This mission is still important today and is the reason the majority of public parks have an adventure playground containing swings, slides and climbing frames.

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The Frog Pond at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, Mark Neville, 2016

Unfortunately, today’s playgrounds are under threat due to limited funding. There is very little money for maintenance and repairs, and many parks are being sold off to building contractors. Contemporary photographer and activist Mark Neville travelled around London parks, taking photos for his book Child’s Play. Although the book was published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Foundling Museum, it is entirely relevant to the Play Well exhibition. The book and photographs focus attention on how conditions for children can be improved and the real and imagined barriers to play in cities.

Neville’s book warns of a “shrinking childhood” and its connection to the rise of mental health problems in younger generations. Not many children are given the freedom to go outside alone, unlike their parents who may have grown up playing on the streets. Grandparents may have been walking over a mile to school without a parent from a very young age and great-grandparents were allowed to wander even further.

Do the risks of playing outside outweigh the risks of a child’s mental health? Children who have not had the freedom to explore are more likely to fear the outside world and become anxious when leaving the safety of their home and parents. Whilst it is not safe to play on pavements due to the increase in road traffic, Neville and other activists are advocating for a national strategy for play and an increase in funding for adventure playgrounds.

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In the 21st century, physical play is rapidly being replaced by digital play. Unable to play outside when they desire, children are finding ways to have fun and socialise online or through video games. Ironically, the people who restricted children’s freedom of physical play are concerned about the effects of digital play. In 2018, gaming addiction was listed as a disease by the World Health Organisation, however, this has not stopped families, schools and children from adopting digital technology.

To end the exhibition, a set of digital screens allow visitors to play games designed by 14-19-year-olds. RawMinds, a project that takes place twice a year at the Wellcome Collection, invited a group of teenagers – “digital natives” – to create games based on their experiences. They were encouraged to consider both the positive and negative aspects of gaming, resulting in games that help to forge friendships, tackle anxieties about the world and limit addiction. One game required two players to work together rather than against each other; neither player could complete the game without the assistance of the other. Another game explored the concept of visiting a shopping centre as a socially anxious child. Children suffering from anxiety would recognise themselves in the game’s characters and other children would learn to understand the minds of their peers.

Open to all ages, Play Well is an eye-opening exhibition that draws attention to the importance of play. The psychology of play is something that is not often addressed or even thought about and it is interesting to discover the theories about childhood development. Having learnt about Fröbel, the McMillan sisters, Lowenfeld and Winnicott’s theories, it is worrying how little opportunity children have to learn through play today. Yet, it is reassuring to discover the effectiveness of a few wooden blocks and the opportunity to express emotion.

Play Well is a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and will remain open until 13th April 2020. The galleries are open every day except Mondays.

Smoke and Mirrors

The Psychology of Magic

“Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”
– Karl Garmain (1878-1959)

The psychology of the human mind, sleight of hand, misdirection and (occasionally) a gullible audience, are key parts of a magician or conjurer’s act. Knowing how the mind works is an important skill for those in the magic business – a vital element for all astonishing feats of trickery. This year, the Wellcome Collection explores the worlds of psychology and entertainment to discover the truth about deception. In a free exhibition, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, visitors are given the opportunity to see magic props up close, including spirit photographs, Derren Brown’s gorilla suit, Tommy Cooper’s fez and Paul Daniels’ sawing-in-half box.

For centuries, magicians have stunned audiences with extraordinary acts that leave people believing in magic. In recent years, scientists have begun to understand how they utilise the gap between what spectators think they perceive and what they actually see. The exhibition is split into three parts: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, which have all been or are undergoing examination by psychologists and neuropsychologists.

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Witchcraft – Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1871

The wars of the 18th and 19th centuries led to a rise in the belief in spiritualism. Thousands of people lost loved ones through warfare or disease and the practices of the Occult, mystics, mediums, theosophers and magicians became appealing as a result. In the hopes that they could connect with the dead, people flocked to séances and latched on to anyone who claimed to be able to speak to spirits.

Often, people created or bought their own ouija board made up of numbers, letters and a variety of other symbols, through which they hoped to receive messages directly from spirits without the help of a medium. Participants would place their fingers upon a planchette on top of a board and let the spirit guide them to the correct letters or numbers to spell out the answers to questions they asked. Inevitably, someone would be deliberately pushing the planchette to make it appear as though a spirit was present.

Séances were particularly popular during the Victorian era. Due to people’s desperation to contact the spirits of loved ones, it was easy for mediums to make them believe they had been successful with clever tricks involving moving objects and levitating furniture. Usually occurring in the dark, magicians and mediums used a number of tricks to convince vulnerable minds that someone was trying to contact them.

In the early 1900s, William S. Marriott, also known by the stage name Dr Wilmar, was a British magician who became well known for exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. Pearson’s magazine, which specialised in speculative literature, politics and the arts, commissioned Marriott to write a series of illustrated articles investigating mediums so that readers could “judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject.”

Alongside Marriott’s articles, he posted photographs of himself demonstrating several effects commonly produced during séances. Levitating tables were often raised by the medium’s foot to make it appear as though they were floating. Marriott also discovered the methods used to create ghostly shapes and movements in the dark. Often, mediums were tied to their chairs to convince participants that they could have no possible involvement with the paranormal activity. In the dark, however, the restrained medium still had access to poles attached to objects, which he or she could move surreptitiously. An example of this is “spirit hands” that appear to surround the medium, however, with the lights on, it is possible to see the dummy arms attached to sticks and poles, which are being controlled by the medium’s hands, almost like puppets.

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Spirit Photography

In his exposé, Marriott also debunked spirit photographs. Some photographers claimed to have captured evidence of a ghost on film, which materialised during the development processes. Sitters claimed no one else was present and yet a ghostly figure could clearly be seen in the background of portraits, family photos and so forth. Whilst many believed these were the result of a psychic force, sceptics suggested there may have been fluid on the plate of the camera, which produced the ghostly appearance. Marriott, however, discovered the truth about this fraudulent trickery.

At the same time that society was lapping up paranormal activities and psychic experiments, others set up the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge to investigate and try to understand these events and abilities. In 1893, the world-renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) joined their ranks and paid witness to William Marriott’s demonstration and explanation about spirit photography.

Marriott produced his own spirit photographs, all the while explaining to Doyle how he had manipulated the images to make it appear as though a spirit was present. Publically, Doyle stated, “Mr Marriott has clearly proved one point, which is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a plate. We must unreservedly admit it.”

Unlike today where smartphones and digital cameras take a photo instantly, the oldest cameras involved using plates, special papers, development fluid and many more elements. If, for example, a plate was to be used more than once, it would pick up two different images, creating a double exposure. This way, photographers could take a photo of a “ghost” and combine it with another (ghost-free) photograph.

During the 19th century, Ira Erastus Davenport (1839-1911) and William Henry Davenport (1841-1877), known as the Davenport Brothers, were famous for presenting illusions and other supposedly supernatural acts. Time and again, the brothers were proved to be frauds, and yet they continued to be a popular act in both the United States and England. Their most famous act was the cabinet box illusion during which the brothers were tied up and placed in a box full of musical instruments. The members of the audience, who believed neither brother was able to move, were amazed when they heard the musical instruments being played. On opening the box, the brothers remained tied up in the positions in which they had been left.

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Maskelyne and Cook Poster

In 1865, John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), an English stage magician and, interestingly, the inventor of the pay toilet, attended a performance of the Davenport Brothers’ Public Cabinet Séance in Cheltenham Town Hall. During the show, a faulty piece of equipment meant Maskelyne was witness to Ira Davenport throwing musical instruments by hand inside the cabinet, despite being tied up.

After exposing the Davenport Brothers, Maskelyne and his friend George Alfred Cooke (1825-1905) put on a magic show at the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly where they not only performed impressive illusions but revealed how public séances were conducted. Video clips of similar exposés are played on screen throughout the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition.

Maskelyne and Cook inspired other magicians to publically investigate mediums who were suspected frauds. These “anti-spiritualist” shows were extremely successful and proved as popular as the original séances and magic shows. Magicians such as Harry Price (1881-1947) and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) exposed many mediums including Margery Crandon (1888-1941) and Leonora Piper (1857-1950).

Through watching and debunking mediums, magicians and conjurors, psychical researchers laid the foundations for important discoveries about the human mind, perception and belief. Today, psychologists at the Mind Attention & General Illusory Cognition (MAGIC) Lab at Goldsmiths University of London, are examining the act of misdirection in performances of magic tricks. Dr Gustav Kuhn, the director of the MAGIC Lab and president of the Science of Magic Association explains during the exhibition via a series of videos the misdirection of perpetual reasoning using footage from his 2006 study There’s more to magic than meets the eye.

With the aid of eye-tracking technology, Kuhn and his contemporaries have shown that magicians are very good at distracting their audience and making them look elsewhere, thus missing the moment the trick takes place. Kuhn also reveals that people often fail to see what is in front of their very eyes. The Vanishing Ball Illusion, shown in one of Kuhn’s short films, demonstrates this phenomenon. The magician repeatedly throws a ball up into the air and catches it, however, on the final throw he pretends to throw it, making it look like the ball has vanished into thin air. Many spectators claim to have seen the ball leave the magicians hand, whereas, in reality, the ball remains concealed in the magician’s fist.

By repeatedly throwing the ball, the magician convinces the spectator’s brain that it knows what will happen next. The movement of the hand on the final throw makes the brain believe that it will see the ball go up in the air. The brain registers something a tenth of a second after the eyes have seen it, therefore, by the time the brain has caught up, it appears as though the ball has disappeared.

The art of misdirection is a skill that all conjurors must learn. It involves making the audience relax their focus at a key moment and being able to guide them to look in the wrong (or right) place at the right time. Magic shows remain popular today and involve all sorts of simple tricks that when executed perfectly appear to be pure magic. With the invention of television, conjurors have been able to broadcast their stage shows to the nation (and further afield), resulting in an increasing number of people wanting to perform tricks too.

The Wellcome Collection displays seven examples of “do-it-yourself” magic sets through the ages, beginning as far back as 1843 with Box of Tricks. Magicians have earnt money by producing their own boxes of magic tricks to sell to consumers. Ernest Sewell (1889-1965), who was often in great demand to perform in front of the Royal Family, was one of the first entertainers to introduce conjuring to British children in the late 1920s. In the 1950s, boxes were produced under the title Maskelyne’s Mysteries, hoping the reference to the long-dead magician would garner sales. The magician and mentalist David Berglas (b.1926), David Nixon (1919-1978) and the late Paul Daniels (1938-2016) also jumped on the bandwagon, selling magic box sets at various points in their career. Most recently (2015) Steven Frayne (b.1982), better known by his stage name Dynamo, has released his own Magic Kit. Most of these boxes include a pack of cards, rope, plastic objects and a magic wand.

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Fez belonging to Tommy Cooper

Performing in front of a large crowd is a much harder feat than doing a few tricks in the living room at family parties. Thomas Frederick “Tommy” Cooper (1921-84), the fez-wearing British prop comedian and member of the Magic Circle, knew the importance of engaging the entire audience’s attention in order to make a trick work. Tommy Cooper’s acts relied on non-stop chatter and comedy to relax the audience; whilst the audience was concentrating on what he was saying or laughing at his jokes, he would make his sleight-of-hand move. Tommy was also known for deliberately botching tricks and whilst the audience was laughing perform the real trick, much to their amazement. This is known as a “sucker trick”, where the audience is led to believe they know how the trick is done, only to be proved wrong.

Unfortunately, Tommy Cooper’s reputation meant that when he collapsed on stage during Live from Her Majesty’s variety show, the audience and backstage assistants thought it was part of his act. Tommy Cooper had suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital. It is unlikely Tommy could have been saved if his collapse had been realised sooner – the heart defibrillator that would have saved his life arrived thirty years too late.

The final part of the exhibition moves on to mentalism. A mentalist is a magician who performs mind reading and mind control amongst other psychological stunts. Similarly to the Victorian mystics, some mentalists claim to have real powers, however, others rely on being able to read other people’s body language, understanding the human mind and performing illusions. Often, these sorts of acts create the impression that members of the audience also have psychic potential and, even though this cannot possibly be true, it is very easy to be seduced by this deception.

Recent psychological studies suggest that the human mind can be tricked into believing false explanations even though it is clear that the performer is a conjurer. Mentalist performances are less flamboyant than the typical magic shows of the 20th century. It requires concentration, often silent, to allow the mentalist to read the behaviour of their audience, which enables them to create powerful illusions.

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Derren Brown Mind Reader, 2007

Whilst researchers were keen to expose the ruses of Victorian mystics, psychologists are less concerned about how the mentalist performs the act but rather the ethical boundaries of such a deception. Derren Brown (b.1971), the English mentalist and illusionist who has produced several award-winning shows, openly admits that he has no supernatural abilities. He connects his success to the ability to exploit his audience’s psychological traits.

In 2016, Derren Brown’s television series The Push demonstrated how easy it can be to manipulate another person. The show explored whether it was possible to psychologically coerce someone into justifying the killing of another human being. It explored human desire to please and obey, even when faced with actions that are morally wrong.

The exhibition explores the performance techniques of other mentalists, including The Amazing Dunninger, Raymond the Enchantress and Alexander “The Man Who Knows All”.

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Telepatha Cards

Generally, the claims that some performers have psychic powers has been rejected by audiences and science alike. Nonetheless, it continues to be the basis of a lot of contemporary magic shows. In the 1930s, the founder of parapsychology Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980) coined the term Extrasensory perception (ESP) to describe psychic abilities such as clairvoyance and telepathy. Initially a serious form of research with the potential for military use, the tools used in laboratories became popular with the general public after they were released in the form of board games. These games claimed to reveal hidden ESP powers in its players.

One of these so-called games was called Telepatha Cards, designed by the well-known Harry Price. One participant would select a card from a shuffled pack and attempt to transmit the symbol shown through the power of thought to a second participant who would then guess the card.

The final method of “magic” explored in the exhibition is the power of suggestion. Whilst this may sound like harmless fun, an experiment at McGill University in Canada revealed the dangers of misleading participants. In 2016, psychologists tricked a handful of people into believing a brain scanner could both read and influence their thoughts. The results showed that participants felt they had less control over their decisions when the scanner was supposedly influencing their thoughts than when the machine was only reading their mind. In reality, however, the brain scanner was doing neither.

This experiment also revealed the potential dangers of using misinformation to make people compliant, suggestible and vulnerable. Psychologists are continuing to explore how this knowledge could potentially help to challenge negative thoughts and behaviour patterns.

What began as an exhibition about a form of entertainment, Smoke and Mirrors leaves visitors contemplating the unethical practices of contemporary magic. How far can magic go before it becomes a cruel scientific experiment and stops being an enjoyable, awe-inspiring performance? This leads to a deeper question, is the idea of free will – the ability to choose our own actions – merely an illusion?

Free admission to Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic is available at The Wellcome Collection until 15th September 2019. Live performances in the gallery take place throughout the week. Performance times are listed on the website.