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Wunderblock exhibition examines the history of influence over children’s minds since the Cold War

The exhibition, by artist Emma Smith, is based on research undertaken by the Hidden Persuaders Project at Birkbeck, and will be displayed at the Freud Museum from 6 March 2019.

Children at the Jackson Nursery, Vienna, 1937. Courtesy Freud Museum London.

Brainwashed minds, human displacement and nurture over nature: the Cold War was a time where politicians, parents and scientists feared for the moral future of children as democratic citizens. The aftermath of the Second World War saw many children growing up without parents, in institutions or families whose culture was very different from their own. Child psychoanalysis and psychiatry gained prominence, as fears grew that children’s minds could be shaped to support Fascism or Communism.

In March 2019, Wunderblock, a new exhibition of work by artist Emma Smith at London’s Freud Museum, will bring an alternative perspective to this topic, as she asks ‘To what extent does the baby or child influence their environment and shape the adult’s world?’. The exhibition has been created in collaboration with Birkbeck’s Hidden Persuaders Project, which has undertaken research into the real or imagined role played by psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in brainwashing children and adolescents during this period. Hidden Persuaders considers what ethical guidelines have been put in place to counteract fears of mind control during the Cold War.

Through Wunderblock, Smith, who has engaged with children, teenagers, parents and professionals in child mental health and education, grounds the historical work of the Hidden Persuaders in a contemporary context, making work that encourages audiences to think from a child’s perspective.

Speaking of the collaboration, Daniel Pick, Professor of History at Birkbeck and Principal Investigator of the Hidden Persuaders Project, said: “It's been a creative and rewarding experience to be able to work not only with academic colleagues, but also with artists, curators, school teachers, and film-makers (amongst others) in recent years on the Hidden Persuaders project. We greatly look forward to the opening of the Freud Museum exhibition Wunderblock. It’s been intriguing to see our historical research, notably that produced by doctoral student, Katie Joice underpin this commission and then to see how this historical work has been taken up and transformed in original ways by an artist for this show at the Freud Museum. Wunderblock has been a genuine and unexpected collaboration over the last twelve months between our research group, Rachel Fleming-Mulford and Emma Smith.”

In the unique domestic setting of the Freud Museum, Wunderblock uses sound, interactive installation and the Museum’s own collection to explore the agency of the child and see the world from their perspective. The title Wunderblock, or ‘Magic Writing Pad’, is borrowed from a Freud essay where it is used to illustrate the workings of our unconscious, where memories are stored and from where they may re-emerge.

The exhibition is curated by Rachel Fleming-Mulford, who said: "It's been fascinating working with Birkbeck's Hidden Persuaders Project over the last year to develop Emma Smith's upcoming Wunderblock exhibition. The collaboration has enabled Emma and me to explore new areas of research and to meet and work with a wide range of people - from children and teachers to researchers and clinicians. I hope the exhibition and its accompanying events draw attention to the Hidden Persuaders Project's important historical research and open up further debate around contemporary attitudes to the rights and mental health of children and young people."

Wunderblock has been commissioned by Birkbeck for the Hidden Persuaders Project, funded by the Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fund.

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