Review of Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life

The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life (March 24 – August 31, 2011) in London is a smorgasbord of over 200 fantastic dirt-related artifacts. Passerbys will find something interesting, disgusting, or odd to contemplate, and connoisseurs and scholars of dirt will find new tid bits to add to their repertoires and see originals they’ve studied. Yet the exhibit does not tie together beyond fairly literal interpretations of dirt, and does not offer an investigation or analysis that accounts for what dirt is or why it’s worth studying or exhibiting in the first place.

Dirt” is one area of discard studies that includes, as the exhibit explains, “dust, excrement, rubbish, bacteria, soil” and “social outsiders.” It’s a hazy conglomerate whose unity is best described by anthropologist Mary Douglas as the sorts of “matter out of place” that trouble social boundaries of self and other, inside and outside, pure and contaminated, and proper and taboo. The modernization of dirt involves its turn to science and medicalization (which turns filth into germs, and social outsiders into policies of racial “purity” and eugenics). As such, most scholarly research into “dirt” necessitates collaborations between one or more of the fields of anthropology, engineering, sanitation, hygiene, waste management, policy, medicine, history, sociology, philosophy, ecology, cultural studies, literature, art, and science.

An etching, with watercolour, of a figure dressed in a cholera safety suit, circa 1832. Credit: Reuters/Wellcome Library, London

Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life is a collection of objects that demonstrate how these disciplines intersect. As most pieces in the exhibit were visual media (art, posters, films, models) and material culture (tools, objects, artifacts), the overall effect is to create a sort of visual culture of dirt in different times and places. Many of the objects on display are superstars of dirt scholarship. To name a few: John Snow’s ghost map that lead him to deduce that cholera was spread by polluted water; a preserved flask of “rice water” from a cholera patient; one of Antony van Leeuwenhoek‘s single lens microscopes that saw some of the first bacteria; an early Edison film of George Warings White Wings; racial “cleansing” posters and practices from Nazi Germany; Santiago Sierra’s 21 Anthropomentric Modules Made of Human Faeces by the People of Sulabh International, India, an art piece made of giant blocks of faces; Arthur Munby‘s photographic “dirt pornography” of his lover/maid Hannah Cullwick dressed as different female labourers; and original brochures for Mierle Laderman UkelesTouch Sanitation (1977-1980) performance, where  she shook the hand of every sanitation worker in New York City as well as her plans for New York City’s Freshkills Park.

Santiago Sierra's art piece made of human shit.

Yet as a curated collection, the exhibit doesn’t tell a story, and it doesn’t give visitors much more than a literal interpretation of what dirt might be or mean. More problematically, some of the affiliations between objects in the exhibition created by placing them together can be awkward or even misleading. The first section on “The Home: Delft, 1683“, for example, was about housework and microscopic bacteria first seen by Leeuwenhoek under his newly invented microscope. Household dust and bacteria were paired because both had to do with Delft, yet the juxtaposition was awkward since dust was not intimately linked to bacteria at the time, and microbial contamination wouldn’t become a common theory for another two centuries. Yet the placement of the two forms of dirt together in the same section implied a meaningful connection. The same presentist pairing occurred in the section on The Street: Soho, 1854, where cholera artifacts shared a space with maps of

Nazi soldiers and party members watch Jews being forced to scrub the pavements of Vienna. Keystone/Getty Images

sewage systems, even though the link between water polluted with human waste and cholera would not be connected despite John Snow’s efforts (also on display) for another sixty years. The section on The Museum: Dresden, 1930 fared slightly better in its pairing of hygiene and racial cleansing, as both hygiene based on the early germ theory of disease and the medicalization of racism involved fortifying the White, European body against intruders of all sorts and the idea that susceptibility to the mixing that might occur in the body, via microscopic agents or “miscegenation” weakened not only the individual but the nation and dominant race. In contrast to more or less successful pairings of different dirts, the short section called The Community: New Delhi and Kolkata, 2011, was strictly about the human waste  scavengers at the bottom of the caste system.

Overall, the exhibit was like visiting a fantastic library without the call numbers to guide you. This is entirely appropriate given the venue. The Wellcome Collection is a library and archive that collects artifacts and documents at the crux of medicine, science, art, and the humanities. It’s two million items makes up one of the world’s largest collections on the history and progress of medicine, and the library, exhibition center, and conference rooms together create  a rare and wonderful interdisciplinary study center. Fittingly, then, the exhibition has an accompanying book (of the same name) rather than a catalog. People can also contribute to a virtual archive of “filthy images” on the Filthy Flickr Pool.

Advertisement for Pears' Soap. Caption reads, "Matchless for the complexion..."188-? Wellcome Library, London

As such, Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life can be best interpreted as a massive and spectacular dirt archive. Like an archive, the exhibit is a collection of objects gathered under a somewhat literal but not overly well defined topic and its largely up to the visitor to generate meanings and connections. In other words, the exhibit is a treasure trove for dirt scholars.  For the general public, the Wellcome folks have invited filmmakers, scholars, and artists to give talks, tours and performances about dirt to help visitors makes some of their own connections. If you happen to miss these events the books in the amazingly well-stocked library— an extensive hodge podge of excellent morsels much like the exhibit— can aid in the task.

In short, I highly recommend the exhibit for people who are already practiced or interested in the connections and stakes inherent in the topic of dirt. For others, it’s a collection of curiosities.