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).

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
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.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most