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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas