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Bringing art to life in classrooms with Magic Lantern

Bringing art to life in classrooms with Magic Lantern

Today I’m talking to Briony Brickell, the director of Magic Lantern, an educational charity delivering interactive art history workshops in schools across the UK.

We talk about their 30-year mission of turning classrooms into pop-up art galleries and how they engage students with masterpieces.


Magic Lantern is an award winning charity that has been turning primary school classrooms into pop-up art galleries for nearly 30 years. Children are given the opportunity to explore, discuss and bring to life famous artworks, and discover the world of art from cave paintings to Cubism, Gothic to Graffiti, and Turner to the Turner Prize. These unique art history workshops are designed to support classroom topics across the whole curriculum and incorporate elements of drama, soundscape, writing and dialogue.

In my chat with Briony Brickell, we discuss the organisation’s work, its values, and the interactive art history sessions they conduct in primary schools for children aged 4 to 11.

We explore Magic Lantern’s unique cross-curricular approach, incorporating art history into various subjects like science, geography, history, English, maths, and more.

We discuss a variety of specific strategies used in sessions, such as inviting students to step into artworks, creating soundscapes, exploring colours and patterns, and engaging students in the making process through dry painting.

Briony also details a session involving Henri Rousseau’s painting “Surprised” and shares how information is shared in the sessions.

Briony concludes with tips for engaging children with art, emphasising the importance of cultivating a culture of looking, letting paintings speak for themselves initially, and gradually introducing historical and narrative context.

Hope you enjoy our chat!


Henri Rousseau Surprised (1891)

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors (1533)

The Townley Discobolus statue

Magic Lantern website

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Episode 119 Final MAGIC LANTERN

Claire Bown: Hello, and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown.

Claire Bown: I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art, objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show.

Claire Bown: Hello, and welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host, Claire Bown of Thinking Museum, and this is episode 119. Happy New Year, because today I’m talking to Briony Brickell, Director of Magic Lantern, a UK based educational charity that specialises in delivering interactive art history workshops in schools.

Claire Bown: We’re talking about their innovative and inclusive approach to art education. But before that Last time, I was talking to Dr Stephanie Smith, Learning Manager at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra, about how they engage students in historic spaces. This episode was the last episode of 2023 and the most popular episode of the year by far. So do go and listen to episode 118. If you haven’t already, you’re in for a treat. And if you have a question for the show, or you want to suggest a guest, feel free to get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. I’d love to talk to more educators. Doing innovative things, engaging with art objects and audiences in museums and heritage.

Claire Bown: So do get in touch with me via the link in the show notes. And don’t forget, the Art Engager has over 100 episodes to choose from, and you can take your pick from the big back catalog of different episodes to brush up on your skills, be inspired, and learn new techniques. And if you want to support this show and keep it going from strength to strength in 2024, you can do so by treating me to a cup of tea on I’ll put a link in the show notes. Okay, let’s get on with today’s show. So before I share our conversation, let me introduce Magic Lantern. Magic Lantern is an educational charity based in the UK that specialises in delivering interactive art history workshops in primary schools, with the aim of introducing children and young people to art and making art accessible to everyone.

Magic Lantern’s workshops are designed to turn classrooms into pop up art galleries, engaging children between the ages of 4 and 11. In today’s conversation, I’m talking to Briony Brickell, Director of Magic Lantern, about their unique approach. So we discussed the specific strategies they use in their sessions, such as inviting students to step into artworks, creating soundscapes, exploring colours and patterns, and engaging students in the making process through dry painting.

Claire Bown: We talk about the importance of creating a culture of looking, allowing students to wonder. and ask questions throughout. Briony discusses a specific session centered around Henri Rousseau’s painting Surprise, I’ll put a link in the show notes, and shares how their educators make this art experience dynamic, interactive, and memorable.

Claire Bown: We explore how role play, movement, and collaborative activities help to foster deeper connections between students and art, making the learning process more enjoyable and more impactful. It was great talking to Briony about how Magic Lantern sparks curiosity, enjoyment, and confidence in children when engaging with and interpreting artworks. So here’s our chat.

Claire Bown: Hi Briony, and welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Briony Brickell: Hello Claire, it’s very nice to be here with you, thank you.

Claire Bown: Perhaps you could start by telling us who you are and what you do.

Briony Brickell: My name is Briony Brickell and I’m the director of Magic Lantern. Magic Lantern is an educational charity who deliver interactive art history workshops in schools across the UK. We were set up 30 years ago by a lady called Diana Schomburg. And Diana was a retired teacher, and she set up Magic Lantern wanting to introduce children and young people to art and to make art accessible to everyone.

Briony Brickell: The workshops that we deliver in schools, are primarily in primary schools, so for children from ages 4 to 11 years old. And we go into schools and essentially turn the classroom into a pop up art gallery. Sessions tend to last between 45 minutes to one hour, and during that time it’s really about engaging children, looking at art, and enjoying that process as well.

Claire Bown: Brilliant. I’ve seen some video on your website. of some of the sessions in action, and they look incredibly dynamic, participative, so perhaps you could share an example of a session.

Claire Bown: I know they’re all different, but give us an example with an artwork and the type of things that might take place.

Briony Brickell: Yeah, so what’s unusual about the work that we do is they’re history of art sessions, but we work across the whole of the primary curriculum. So we’ll often go into schools to support with Science Week, leading a session on forces in motion, water, light and dark.

Briony Brickell: We’ll go in to support on geography or history topics, things like islands or the ancient Greeks, World War II. We will support learning in English, Maths, PSHE. And RE (Religious Education), and of course, Art and Design. We’re not suggesting that you can use art history to deliver the whole curriculum, but what you can do is use works of art to really engage, inspire and extend learning within a particular topic.

Briony Brickell: So often when we’re contacted, the school will have an idea of what it is they would like us to deliver. So Each session will have a theme and a topic to it. Sometimes it will be an art and design theme. I was recently in a school in Taunton, a primary school called Well Springs, and I’d gone in there to deliver sessions across the whole school, so right the way from the early years foundation stage, which is four and five year olds, up until The children in year 6, who are age 10 and 11.

Briony Brickell: And I’d been asked to go in and look at a particular work of art that the whole school was going to look at, and that was Henri Rousseau’s ‘Surprise’, which is a painting in the National Gallery in London. And the idea was to really get the children to pause, To stop, to really look. In order to do that, I think something that’s really important for Magic Lantern is that we don’t go in and present very dry biographic details.

Briony Brickell: As you said, it’s not a static experience. It’s about creating a really dynamic interaction that happens within the classroom. We might even start teasing the image out, just showing a tiny fraction of that painting. Maybe it’ll have a Tip! A little kind of, a bit of the tiger that features in there, just trying to get the children to imagine, where are we?

Briony Brickell: Where is this painting? What’s going on? And as you expand and let them discover the whole painting, a really lovely thing that we do with Magic Lantern is the idea that you can, stepping into an artwork. One of our patrons is the children’s illustrator and writer, James Mahey, who has a series of the ‘Katie’ picture books.

Briony Brickell: And it’s the idea within these books that the young girl can step into these artworks and encounter the landscapes and characters who live within. So a good introductory kind of activity is to imagine that you could step or jump into this artwork. And once in there to move around, to explore, essentially though, letting it be child led.

Briony Brickell: Letting them tell you what they can see, what they can hear, what they can potentially taste, touch, smell. And sense is a really good way, when you’re looking at an artwork, to really, particularly with children, think about how they can encounter this, how their imaginations can help them grow, that experience.

Briony Brickell: Sometimes with older children we’ll even create a sense poem, so a poem like Within the Jungle, imagining perhaps they were the tiger, what it was that they can feel, smell, touch, hear. So once they’re in and they’re moving around, maybe even some acting, and we’ll often encourage children to become characters, to take on that pose, to embody how a person is standing.

Briony Brickell: But this particular Rousseau painting we’ll encourage them to become that tiger, to arch their backs, open their eyes, and have their jaws ready. But in that moment, thinking about empathy, thinking about how does that tiger feel? What can we see that tells us how he’s feeling? And really in terms of that kind of what they can see, there’s kind of evidence to tell them what’s going on.

Briony Brickell: Something that’s really great within this particular painting, the Rousseau ‘Surprise’ to think about turning it into a soundscape. ‘What are the sounds that they can see?’ You obviously hear sounds, but there’s all the evidence in there. There’s the rain, the lightning that suggests thunder, the movement of the trees and grasses, which are all painted at strong kind of diagonal angles.

Briony Brickell: You can sense the wind. And of course, looking at the tiger, imagining the roar. You can get the children to just very easily, using their bodies, tables, tap out the sound of the rain, make the sound of the creaking branches. Roar like a tiger. And once you have all these sounds together, you can almost conduct them as a sort of, as an orchestra within the class.

Briony Brickell: Bringing them in at different moments. Possibly not always good to have everyone roaring like a tiger at the same time. Depending on other lessons being taught, you can audition for that role and then have solos coming in. But again, it’s ways to animate what it is that they can see really bring it to life, but using their eyes to find the clues that tell them what are the sounds.

Briony Brickell: How do they know there’s thunder? Because they can see the lightning. How do we know there’s wind? Because they can see the movement of the branches. So it’s getting them to work to tell you what they can see. Once you have that, you have this painting really coming to life, then you can almost begin to really look at the painting.

Briony Brickell: The painting is an object. Something that’s really key to do with any work of art that you’re showing kind of outside of a gallery setting, where you don’t have the work itself, is how big is it? The size that can be really lost, particularly if you’re in a classroom, you’re showing something on a whiteboard, have your tape measure, get two children up.

Briony Brickell: Do they think it’s bigger or smaller than the image they can see on the white screen? Is it bigger than their teacher? Is it smaller? Is it taller than them? Measure it out and then compare it to the human body. That’s how we always understand and appreciate size best. And then also think about how it’s been made.

Briony Brickell: Looking at it and looking at what colours can they find. Even all the way through, right the way from very young children to older children. Get them to identify, to look. It’s green, but how many different types of green have they got? What about the colours that aren’t green? And the importance that there’s a wonderful red.

Briony Brickell: You’ll see it if you look at the image. A kind of red, feathery plant, and someone will spot that. But that importance when you put red against green, how the red pops straight out. Thinking about kind of color theory, how colors work together, complementary colors. Thinking about the patterns within the painting, what patterns can they identify?

Briony Brickell: And there are the very simple patterns, the patterns to do with the tiger. There’s also patterns in terms of the grass, in terms of the organic patterns of the tree branches that you have coming down. And all across the paint surface is rain that Rousseau has put on there. The whole thing is covered with smatterings of rain that all move in the same direction.

Briony Brickell: And movement’s important as well. I think movement is something to really get children to think about and take into their bodies. Not just to describe it in words, but stand up and become the movement. Which way is the painting pointing? Where is the grass leading? Is it standing straight up or is it turning to its side?

Briony Brickell: Use their hands to become the branches. There are some other paintings where I’ll almost get children to dance out the movement. Where does the movement of the painting take them? It’s a still object, but nonetheless the energy of the movement is really important to communicating the feel of it.

Briony Brickell: It’s always interesting to teach children about the way that lines make us feel, straight lines make us feel very very alert , horizontal lines make us feel much more calm, and get them to just begin to think about that, and they they feel bigger ideas.

Briony Brickell: Until you see them enacted within the artwork, and then they become really tangible. And something else that we often do in Magic Lantern is dry painting. This is a real hallmark, something that we have done for 30 years. We bring in a paint palette. Classroom, a dry paint ballot, never wet.

Briony Brickell: And with this different paintbrushes, and we invite children to come up and copy the paint marks of the painting, and part of that is to understand how it was painted, the way in which it was made. Do they think he was working slowly and methodically, or do they think he was working spontaneously and rushed?

Briony Brickell: How was the paint being put on? Was it being put on smoothly? Was it thick? They can draw and make those marks themselves and it’s a really lovely way to get children to just really think about this as an art object that’s been made, the making process itself, the identity of an artist that sits in here as well, beginning to introduce that idea of the maker as well.

Briony Brickell: And I think what’s important with A painting like the Rousseau is how many different ways that we can take this as well. When I was introducing that particular painting in that context, it was very much sitting within the theme of an art week and each of the different year groups had a different theme.

Briony Brickell: Some classes were looking at patterns, some were looking at colors, others were looking at storytelling, but this is a painting that can really lend itself to other topics as well. I used it recently in a geography topic. Year one class, so a group of six and seven year olds, and we were using it As an islands topic, we’re moving between different islands around the globe, so we’d gone, we’d we’d been to Venice, and seen Canaletto we had been to Tahiti and had a painting from Gauguin, and this was a painting we used to visit the island of Sumatra, where they have tigers, so thinking about kind of the tropical climate of that island It is a fantastic one to use within storytelling, particularly that idea of stepping into an artwork.

Briony Brickell: But I’ve also used it really successfully when I’ve been working on a science week, thinking about weather, water cycle, but also and more and more we get asked to deliver topics that speak to the environment. So thinking about animals and habitats.

Claire Bown: Wow, so rich and multi layered there. Thank you for talking us through that.

Claire Bown: We will include a link to the artwork so that you can look and listen to some of the approaches that you use. Love the idea of stepping inside. We do I do a lot of stepping inside jumping into artworks myself. Love the idea of embodiment. And also orchestrating a soundscape.

Claire Bown: I saw that on the video looked absolutely amazing. Having the educator conducts the class into, a performance of what they’re looking at. So many approaches. What types of educators do you work with? You must have some very skilled educators to be able to deliver these amazing

Briony Brickell: sessions.

Briony Brickell: We’re really lucky. So we have, our educators have a real variety of backgrounds that they come to this with. Some of them, like myself, have a background in art history and a background in museum and gallery education. Others come from quite different kind of so we have some who have a background in law.

Briony Brickell: We have a former lawyer, former solicitor we also have one of our longest standing workshop leaders is an actress, and she does all of the training for. New magic lantern workshop leaders. And I think that’s really key in there that almost what kind of we all have in common is being able to communicate and engage.

Briony Brickell: So a lot of the workshop is really tailoring to that audience in terms of age and interest and getting them to To become involved, it’s really finding ways to bring that audience with you on a journey. I think that having those skills to respond to what’s happening in the classroom around you, that it’s not a dry experience.

Briony Brickell: I think something we really emphasize, we have It’s new people coming on board in terms of training is that it must never be a lecture. It is not about telling a group of children and young people what you know. It’s really about them kind of finding out what you know, but it’s a process of kind of discovery for everyone.

Claire Bown: Yeah. And finding out through their curiosity as well. All of the things that you were describing would build up a certain amount of curiosity and wondering, and I can, I saw in the video again, I keep coming back to it, but it was, it brought it alive for me, all the hands going up because people were desperate to say something.

Claire Bown: So how do you create equal participation, because sometimes you’re working with large class sizes. How do they ensure that everyone has a voice and everyone gets involved?

Briony Brickell: I think that’s a really good question. And actually a lot of the time we will be in a class where we’ll have up to 30 children.

Briony Brickell: One of the, something that’s really key to do is make sure there’s a variety of different kind of activities. So that within a workshop, we will probably show on average about 10 different works of art, six of which we’ll really be hoping to get inside. That sounds ambitious, but it’s important within the works that you choose to have a variety of different approaches that will appeal to different learning styles. And there will be some children for whom the physicality of kind of performance, becoming an artwork, role play, drama, that would be really exciting to them.

Briony Brickell: There’ll be other children for whom those elements of kind of imagination will really carry them, being able to work off their feelings, benefiting perhaps from a system where things are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Often at the beginning of the workshop, we’ll really establish that a lot of the time there won’t be right or wrong answers.

Briony Brickell: We’ll really be interested in what, people think and guess. and imagine. And really lastly, what they know. There isn’t a kind of expectation level for that within a magic lantern workshop. I think for myself, when I come out of a workshop, the sort of criteria for success is if children have enjoyed engaging.

Briony Brickell: It’s not really about leaving with a level of knowledge. I think it’s about feeling as if going forward, This is something that they could do again independently. It’s about really removing those sort of barriers to what can sometimes appear to be quite an elitist topic, even from an early age, and giving the confidence and enthusiasm that when they look at artworks.

Briony Brickell: Be that online, in a book, or in a gallery or museum, that is a process a form of engagement that they can do. And the confidence that they can do that. So yes, but your question about finding those different ways, I think it is just securing. for all of the children in that classroom, that they all have that confidence at the end of the session.

Briony Brickell: Being very aware that there’s a kind of parity in the way in which children engage. Not everyone is going to engage with the same things. Some children will feel more confident. on the knowledge sharing, on the kind of prior knowledge that they have, that might be how they want to access the workshop, to tell you things they already know.

Briony Brickell: Some children will feel more comfortable bringing in experiences.

Claire Bown: Yeah, absolutely. And you mentioned information there a couple of times and stressing that this is not a lecture, but you are linking to curriculum, you are linking to specific subjects. How Do you handle information sharing?

Claire Bown: What role does information play in a session and how do your educators weave it in so that it enhances rather than dominates the conversation?

Briony Brickell: I think it underpins and sits under the delivery. So I think the initial kind of engagement, so whenever an image is coming up, it is really As an image comes onto the screen, you are inviting the children to really look at that moment, to experience that in some way, be that kind of imagining they can step into the work, or setting them clues to solve problems to find.

Briony Brickell: But that, as that process of discovery begins, as they begin to engage, that’s when the curiosity gets piqued. That’s when they begin to think, I want to know who made this. I want to know when it was made. I want to know why it was made, where it was, what’s happened to it in the in between time.

Briony Brickell: And the questions start coming. It’s really organic. That’s the lovely thing. When a session is working well. That demand for knowledge and information will come from the children, it doesn’t have to be pressed upon them. I did a great session a few weeks ago on the Tudors with a group of children, they were a year eight audience, so that’s 12 to 13.

Briony Brickell: And what was really interesting was how they were fascinated. We were looking at Holbein, we were looking at the ambassadors, and we’re looking at other portraits that he’d done in the court of King Henry VIII, but they were just fascinated by Holbein. Who was he? Why was he born? How did this, how did he become this artist?

Briony Brickell: And it was really wonderful. It was things that I hadn’t imagined would be part of the session. I was thinking that we were really going to be thinking about the Tudor monarchs but they were interested in that maker, who it was. And there was a wonderful moment with the ambassadors where they discovered the skull.

Briony Brickell: I had them all stand up and they were stood next to the screen at such an angle that it suddenly appeared. And there was this sort of wonder that came over them. It was fantastic. And I think once you have that kind of wonder, and such respect for what he’d done that just opens up doors in terms of what else you want to know and are willing to find out.

Briony Brickell: Yeah, I love it.

Claire Bown: So sharing information in response to people’s wonderings and curiosity and them asking you, desperate to know the answers to all these questions that are in their head makes your job so much easier. You know exactly what they want to know and when they want to know it, yeah.

Briony Brickell: I think it’s important, I think, particularly in some of the topics that we come into. So if we’re coming into school and we’re delivering on a geography topic or a history topic, there’ll be a kind of narrative of learning within that.

Briony Brickell: We’ll know the learning objectives that we want them, or that they either will have met in class, or that we can help them towards in terms of particular topics but it will often be student led.

Claire Bown: So what are the kind of responses that you have from students after a session, how does it leave them

Briony Brickell: feeling?

Briony Brickell: It’s one of my favorite stories is when I’ve been in to lead a session on the ancient Greeks in for a group of children who were in year two, which is a seven to eight audience.

Briony Brickell: And they, we’ve been looking, we were looking at the ancient Greeks and we were looking at the discobolos, the sculpture the sculpture. Holding, he would have been holding a discus. And we had been recreating that in the classroom. So the children together, I’d invited one of them to become the sculptor, and the other to be the sculptor.

Briony Brickell: So the sculptor needed to really observe that, the sculpture itself, in order to position the other child. And they had some frisbees with them they could hold on to, to really embody the kind of grace of that particular sculpture. It’s a wonderful sort of zigzag flowing line that runs between it.

Briony Brickell: We had a great session and we finished and for whatever reason the feedback form didn’t come back to me until after, I think after break, and in the break time they continued the game. So the teacher told me that out in the playground children had continued to Continue to be sculptors and sculptures, and I, yeah, I love the fact that it extended beyond the classroom into play, and and obviously then back into the classroom again,

Briony Brickell: I think children are often surprised at how fun it is I think often children, feedback from teachers, is that children who might otherwise be struggling to access the curriculum really benefit from the approaches that we use with Magic Lantern and I think children who might not think of themselves as arty, who maybe already have concerns that they, on a practical level, they don’t think of themselves as being artistic, but that doesn’t negate them from engaging, looking at, and engaging meaningfully with artworks.

Briony Brickell: And that’s really lovely as well, to see that sometimes with older children, just, yeah, just getting very excited about an artwork.

Claire Bown: Absolutely wonderful. So have you got any tips that you can share with our listeners for helping them to think about ways that they can engage with

Briony Brickell: art?

Briony Brickell: Yeah, I think one of the things to really bear in mind is that we’re terrible at looking and that actually what you can really help children do is And look I will sometimes flash an image up, a really familiar image, like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and then I’ll take it away, and we’ll play a game, who can remember what was there?

Briony Brickell: And it’s a really fun game to illustrate what we think we see, but we don’t see. Yeah, I do this with adults as well. It’s great, but it’s that creating a culture of looking of taking time to look and what we can gain by doing so, and looking can be a game in terms of the clues and the things that we can find within painting.

Briony Brickell: And really, initially, always letting the painting speak for itself. Not setting before, as we show an image, telling people what we can see, which I think as adults we are really guilty of. What do you think of this painting with a lady with a monkey on her shoulder when looking at a portrait of Frida Kahlo?

Briony Brickell: Don’t mention the monkey. Don’t mention who she is or the jungle behind her. Let them look at that work and discover for themselves and wonder for themselves, because then their imaginations and minds will start coming up with their own kind of understanding and sort of reaction to it. I do think that it’s important to be able to give that kind of the history and narratives that sit around artworks, be able to situate them, but I don’t think that.

Briony Brickell: is what we should lead with. Wonderful

Claire Bown: advice there. So start with looking, think about how much we can discover just by looking and how information is sometimes relevant, sometimes not so relevant within that. It can be helpful in some contexts, but in some contexts, you’d be amazed how much people can discover for themselves when they slow down and look at things.

Claire Bown: So we are almost at time. I wonder if you could share with listeners more information about how they can find out more about Magic Lanter, how they can follow you or get in touch.

Briony Brickell: Yes, that would be great. Thank you so much. So we, our website is magic lanter And you can contact us. Our details are on the website as well.

Briony Brickell: We run workshops throughout the country, so we are always very happy to hear from schools who would like to invite us in. We are also looking for workshop leaders at the moment, so it may be that if we don’t have your area of the country listed that we would be very keen to hear from you.

Briony Brickell: We are searching at the moment and you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter and on Facebook as well. Brilliant.

Claire Bown: We will put all the details in the show notes. And if you’re interested in reaching out about becoming an educator, I’m sure there’s very talented educators within our audience here, then do get in touch as well.

Claire Bown: Briony, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and for talking about the wonderful work that you do at Magic Lantern. It’s been a

Briony Brickell: pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much. And thank you for inviting us to come on.

Claire Bown: So a massive thank you to Briony for being on the podcast today.

Claire Bown: I hope you enjoyed our chat. Go to the show notes to find out more about the wonderful work of Magic Lantern. Do go and check out their website. Give them a follow on social media too. And if you’re interested in engaging with art in an innovative way, come and join us in the Slow Looking Club. We have regular themes and regular get togethers, all based around the idea of slowing down and noticing more.

Claire Bown: I’ll put a link in the show notes. So that’s it for this episode. for listening. I’ll see you next time. Bye. for listening to the Art Engager podcast. with me Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my website thinkingmuseum. com and you can also find me on Instagram at Thinking Museum where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience.

Claire Bown: If you’ve enjoyed this episode please share with others and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice. Thank you so much for listening and I’ll see you next time.