Project or print out and show the class 'Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' by Joseph Wright (easily google-able, and attached as a downloadable document below).


  • How many people are there in this picture?
  • What are they looking at?
  • Is anyone excited?
  • Is anyone scared?
  • Is anyone happy or sad?
  • Are you surprised by anyone’s reaction to what is happening?


Ask the students if they were a person in this painting, which one they would be. Arrange them in to a tableau that mimics the painting. This can help to build a greater emotional relationship to Wright’s painting. Now the characters are embodied the students can take on their voices and the philosophy can begin. For example:

Facilitator: Which person are you?
Archie: I’m the one looking at the bird but I’m sad.
Facilitator: you’re looking but sad.
Archie: yes because it’s sad that it has to die but I want to see it die anyway.
Facilitator: can you say why you want to see it die?
Archie: because I’ve never seen it before and I want to find out what happens.
Facilitator: what do you think you could find out by watching the bird die? (A possible emergent question).
Archie: if it’s soul comes out of its body when it dies.


The man in the middle is a traveling scientist who goes into people’s homes and performs scientific experiments for their entertainment and curiosity. This experiment involves depriving a bird of oxygen until it dies. It was thought that such experiments could help to develop an understanding of and a cure for asthma.


Task Question: Should we do experiments on animals?

Questions to take you further:

  • Can we do anything with animals if it makes humans healthier?
  • Can we use animals for our entertainment?
  • Do humans own animals?
  • Now that you know that this is a scientific demonstration does that alter which person you would be in the picture?
  • Are animals like us?
  • Are there things that you should never look at?
  • Are there things that you are curious about but should never do?
  • Would you try and stop this experiment?
  • Would you walk out of the room?


John Berger, Why Look at Animals.
Roger Scruton, Animal Rights and Wrongs


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