This research, undertaken by the Hidden Persuaders Project at Birkbeck, University of London, examines ‘brainwashing’ during the Cold War. Smith’s exhibition particularly focuses on this history in relation to the child.
In the wake of World War II there was considerable anxiety about how children’s minds could be shaped or influenced to support fascism, communism or liberal democracy. A generation of children had also directly experienced the devastation of war, separation from their families, or life in institutions. Child psychoanalysis and psychiatry gained a prominent role and it was a time of great innovation and debate. However, observing and interpreting the developing mind, nurturing infant mental health, and supporting good parenting, also became powerful political issues. These were inextricably linked to the interests of the state, and aspirations for generating democratic citizens.
Smith’s exhibition turns some of this complex history of debate about nature and nurture, and about benign and malign influences over the child, on its head. Smith asks ‘What is the agency of the child?’, ‘What is innate to the infant and in what ways are they an ‘expert’?’; and, crucially: ‘To what extent does the baby or child influence their environment, and shape the adult’s world?’. Inspired by the rich material surrounding infant observation in psychoanalysis by practitioners such as Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, Margaret Lowenfeld and Donald Winnicott, as well as the emergence of child-centred pedagogy and the anti-psychiatry movement, Wunderblock considers how we might engage with this history and meet the child from their own perspective.
Wunderblock will unfold across the Freud Museum through a number of interventions: using sound, interactive installation, and the Museum’s own collection, responding to the significance of this unique domestic setting. The title Wunderblock is taken from the title of Freud’s essay ‘The Magic Writing Pad’, where it refers to the layers of the self that are constantly re-written but may re-emerge from beneath the surface. In the exhibition, these layers are peeled back to reveal the child as a complex person rather than merely a malleable future citizen, a sponge for the influence of others.
Wunderblock is curated by Rachel Fleming-Mulford, and is commissioned by Birkbeck, University of London for the Hidden Persuaders Project, funded by the Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fund.