Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, Wellcome Collection, London - Reviews - Art - The Independent

Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, Wellcome Collection, London

Dishing the dirt... or how we learnt to grapple with life's grubby truths

Miasma. Foul air. Stench. These were the words that sent terror into the urban soul of centuries past, when what everyone should have been afraid of was the contents of the jug on their bedroom washstand. But it wasn't until the mid-19th century, after countless thousands of cholera deaths, that the link began to be made between public health and contaminated water.

A "ghost map" of early Victorian Soho drawn up by a London doctor is by no means the most interesting exhibit in the Wellcome Collection's latest exhibition, Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, but it's one of the most significant. Using tiny black blocks, Dr John Snow marked the homes of individual victims of the infection. A dark cluster of marks lining the streets around a particular water pump identified for the first time the devastating link between disease and drinking water polluted with human faeces.

History is rich with progressive victories over dirt, and the exhibition proposes six different places and times to explore changing attitudes, including a Dutch home in 17th-century Delft, a street in early Victorian London and a Glasgow hospital in the 1860s. There are also rooms devoted to Dresden in the early 20th century, present-day Delhi and a future New York landfill site, but somehow this visitor managed to emerge from the show having missed these (perhaps from poor or absent signage – she's at a loss to say how it happened).

One of the smallest exhibits is the world-changing, single-lens microscope designed by Delft scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, through which he discovered microbes, some of them in what he called the "batter" scraped from his teeth. A plasma screen, showing the very varieties of microbe he found in their different wrigglings and jostlings, makes clear why he termed them animiculae, or "little animals". A magnified dust mite, with its glistening pale-pink carapace and scuttling legs, holds a similar fascination.

It's surely no coincidence that the town of Delft also became famous for its ceramic sanitary wares, and there are exquisite examples displayed of early blue-and-white tiles, and an ingenious chamber pot with a spout.

The question of who would have emptied that chamber pot is also addressed, the frontline battle against dirt having always been fought largely by a half-seen underclass of domestics and cleaners. Victorian photography fleshes out the story at this point, documenting the fantastic variety of sanitising tasks undertaken, many of them with a built-in commercial aspect, as in the case of bone grubbers, mudlarks, and the euphemistically named "pure finders" who collected dog faeces for use in tanneries.

The Victorians' ingenious transformation of dust heaps and other debris into housebricks inspires the show's most intriguing contemporary project. The artist Serena Korda invited institutions and members of the public to gather dust from their immediate environment and submit it in a labelled envelope. She then incorporated the material in specially fired terracotta bricks, each imprinted with the donor's initials. The RNIB's brick includes "dog hair from guide dogs", while one that Stephen Geers contributed has "fluff from under my fridge". Less convincing is the "ritualising" of the bricks in a choreographed dance, shown on film. The project culminates in the bricks' burial – dust to dust – completing the circle.

The Wellcome Collection describes itself as "a free destination for the incurably curious". It would take a dullard, indeed, to prefer that this topic be swept under the carpet.



Until 31 Aug (020-7611 8545)

Exhibitions Choice

The potters, printers and cabinet-makers take pride of place in The Cult of Beauty, the V&A's sprawling survey of the Aesthetic Movement, but it's the South Kensington museum's smaller section devoted to the grace and grandeur of the painters – Leighton, Rossetti, and most notably Whistler – that makes it worth a visit (until 17 Jul).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week