Explore paintings through drama

Background research

When a painting is of a particular event, some background research about the context and significance of the work is also an important aspect of the preparation and planning stage. In An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright 'of Derby', the central moment of tension in the image is focused on the bird held in the glass globe of the air pump.

Detail from Joseph Wright 'of Derby', 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump'
Joseph Wright 'of Derby', 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' 

Relevant background information can help deepen the children's response to the painting by providing new insights into what is happening and enabling them to make connections that would not otherwise be possible.

The National Gallery has details on 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' that can guide your understanding of the background. However, there are other points of information about the context of the painting that illuminate the tension of the moment further and that provide potential ideas for starting points for drama work.

Experiments in the 17th century

In the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists travelled England, showing the latest experiments to wealthy families who wanted to keep abreast of new knowledge: in this case Robert Boyle's studies of the properties of air have been turned into a table top demonstration.

When Boyle himself conducted the experiments, he used farmyard fowl or wild birds but in Wright's painting the bird about to expire in the vacuum pump is a cockatoo. 

Rare, exotic pets 

At the time the painting was created, 1768, cockatoos were rare, exotic birds that would have been kept as pets in only the wealthiest of houses and in 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump', one has been taken from its cage and is being subjected to an experiment which it may or may not survive. 

Discovering that the bird at the centre of the painting is possibly a household pet creates potential for drama that has at its heart a concern that contemporary children will recognise.

Suggestions for improvisation 

Here are some suggestions of how the painting might be explored further through improvisation:

  • Questioning
  • Writing
  • Research
  • Discussion
  • Freeze framing

Next: Starting work with your class

 
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