Light fantastic

24th October 2003 at 01:00
SIR JOHN SOANE'S MUSEUM 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP Tel: 020 7440 4247 Email:

Jerome Monahan joins Year 6 pupils on a visit to a small London musuem where tricks of light and design are used to reveal a treasure trove of art

Sir John Soane's tiny study has walls covered in antique marble fragments acquired at auction sometime after 1806. The marble was bought in such quantity that Soane was still busy "perfecting the display" right up to his death in 1837.

The Year 6 group is from St Clement and St James Church of England Primary School in Holland Park, west London, and they are taking part in a day exploring light, shadow and reflections at the Sir John Soane Museum in London - one of several free themed educational sessions funded by the Department for Education and Skills and organised by the museum's education department.

The students' work continues the task of instruction and inspiration begun in Soane's day when, as the Royal Academy's Professor of Architecture, he would invite students into his home to study his vast collection of model buildings, plaster casts, engravings and decorative fragments. Among the treasures is a spectacular hieroglyph-covered sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I and one of the finest collections of William Hogarth paintings in the country.

Such profusion could be confusing, but the day has been carefully designed to keep the children focused on the theme in hand. Three days beforehand, education officer Jane Monahan visits the school to whet pupils' appetites and prepare them for the often quite cramped conditions in the museum. She tells them about Soane, his house and the collection of artefacts that he was able to amass because of his wife's money, and how it has been possible for the house to be "held in a time warp".

On arrival at the museum the class divides up. Half get stuck into practical light experiments using prisms, a Newtonian reflecting telescope and a light theatre in the dedicated education room, and the others are split into two smaller groups for a tour of the building. Halfway through the visit they swap over. The guides point out how Soane sought to use light and reflection to solve the problems he faced displaying his collection to maximum advantage. Skylights, some filled with coloured glass designed to throw a Mediterranean yellow glow on the objects, helped to maximise the illumination in the days before electric lighting. Glass-tiled floors also allowed light to penetrate the lower floors and basement.

Mirrors figure in abundance, too. They're placed in the recesses of the library, for example, as space-boosting devices that suggest access to illusory rooms "beyond". In other rooms the chandeliers illustrate how sunlight splits into spectrums.

On the tour the groups are given a crash course in staircase design on the house's central spiral stairway and a lesson in symmetry using the carefully balanced portraits of Soane, his wife and two sons in the south drawing room.

Before they leave they are keen to say what they have enjoyed. Michael, aged 11, is fascinated by the sarcophagus and its carvings. For his classmates Rosie and Charlie the highlight has been Soane's picture room, where seemingly solid walls proved to be hinged, opening up to reveal yet more pictures and even a hidden recess containing, among much else, a model of Soane's design for the Bank of England.

Due to restoration work during 2003 and 2004 there won't be any on-site workshops at the museum. But its staff will continue to offer the same free themed visits about lights, shadows and reflection; bridges; the materials of architecture; and Soane's domes. These will be backed by in-school workshops. The materials package includes a series of school-based sessions involving the creation of concrete beams and stress-testing them to destruction. The outreach programme extends to schools in London, Bedfordshire, Northants and Essex.

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