Press release

Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life

Wellcome Collection’s major new exhibition takes a closer look at something that surrounds us but we are often reluctant to confront. ‘Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life’ travels across centuries and continents to explore our ambivalent relationship with dirt.

'Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life': 24 March-31 August 2011
Venue: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE

Bringing together around 200 artefacts spanning visual art, documentary photography, cultural ephemera, scientific artefacts, film and literature, the exhibition uncovers a rich history of disgust and delight in the dirty secrets of our past and points to the uncertain future of filth.

Following anthropologist Mary Douglas' observation that dirt is "matter out of place", the exhibition introduces six very different places as a starting point for exploring attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness: a home in seventeenth century Delft in Holland; a street in Victorian London; a hospital in Glasgow in the 1860s; a museum in Dresden in the early twentieth century; a community in present-day New Delhi; and a New York landfill site in 2030.

Highlights from 'Dirt' include paintings by Pieter de Hooch, John Snow's "ghost map" of cholera and Joseph Lister's scientific paraphernalia. 'Dirt' also includes a wide range of contemporary art, from Igor Eskinja's dust carpet, Susan Collis's bejewelled broom and James Croak's dirt window to video pieces by Bruce Nauman and Mierle Ukeles and a specially commissioned work by Serena Korda.

By looking through the lens of Anthony van Leeuwenhoek’s early microscope, 'Dirt' explores the 17th century Dutch obsession with cleanliness. Picking a path through Soho, the exhibition showcases the voices of the mudlarks and ragpickers whose living depended on the dirt and detritus of Victorian London. The show traces the complicated network of cultural meanings that attached to new discoveries about dirt.

Joseph Lister’s regime of cleanliness transformed hospitals, but hygiene took a darker turn in Dresden, where the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum was co-opted into the ideological horrors of racial purity and ethnic cleansing by the Nazis. From modernity's dogma to corrosive metaphor, the exhibition charts both scientific discoveries and tarnished discourses of cleanliness.

Collisions of personal, ethical and environmental responsibility run through 'Dirt', but the meeting of figurative and literal dirt finds a focus in present-day New Delhi when the plight of manual scavengers is explored through the work of charity Sulabh International and the faecal sculptures of Santiago Sierra. Finally, 'Dirt' looks to the future and to the 30-year project to transform New York's Fresh Kills, once the largest landfill in the world, into a public park.

Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, says: "Dirt is everywhere and periodically we get very worried about it. But we have also discovered that we need bits of it and, guiltily, secretly, we are sometimes drawn to it. Dirt is a perfect subject for Wellcome Collection to explore in our eclectic fashion - the good and bad, the art and science, yesterday and today, in London, Glasgow, New York, Dresden, Delft and New Delhi."

We live in unmistakeably filthy times: exposure to dirt is the corollary of overcrowding, inadequate sanitation and the industrial shaping of metropolitan life. Yet scientists are debating whether our increasing obsession with cleanliness is stripping away our ability to combat infection. However we may wish to sweep it under the carpet or wash our hands of it, this is a subject that continues to make its mark. 'Dirt' will reveal the fascinating world of filth that remains one of the very last taboos.

'Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life' is part of the DIRT season from Wellcome Trust. Look out for online games and events at special dirty locations, including Eden Project, Glastonbury and other summer festivals.

A publication, also entitled 'Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life', featuring essays by Rosie Cox, Virginia Smith, Elizabeth Pisani, Rose George, Robin Nagle, RH Horne and Brian Ralph will accompany the exhibition, published by Profile Books, £20, 256pp.