When I think of dirt (a shockingly rare occurrence) the only word that comes to mind is ‘dirty’. Perhaps this is just a failure of the UK education system which has left another disadvantaged state-school student with an insufficient stock of synonyms to produce a readable review. But it more likely reflects my general indifference towards the subject. In fact, the only thing I know about dirt is that I don’t want it on me, nor do I want it on my freshly washed white trainers, thank you very much.
So I was curious to see how the Wellcome Collection had generated such interest in an exhibition about a thing that people (over the age of six, at least) generally tend to avoid, if not hope to eradicate entirely. Part of the Dirt Season from the Wellcome Trust, ‘Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life’ follows British anthropologist Mary Douglas’ observation that dirt is defined by its context: ‘There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder’. It looks at why people often choose to behold said dirt – in both its palpable and symbolic meanings - from the greatest distance possible. The exhibition presents six different social and geographical urban locations: The Home in Delft, the Netherlands (1683); The Street in London (1854); The Hospital in Glasgow (1867); The Museum in Dresden, Germany (1930); The Community in New Delhi and Kolkata, (2011); and The Land in Staten Island, New York (2030).
The Home section looks extensively at the relationship between cleanliness and godliness in the Netherlands, introduced by a quote from the Book of Psalms: ‘Blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart.’ Dutch books, such as the particularly influential ‘Guide to Christian Housekeeping’ by Petrus Wittewrongel in 1661, would often serve as a kind of handbook of sanitation and sanctity in a filthy, vice-ridden world. While Wittewrongel demands an approach to cleaning that would provide ample material for one of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, ‘Mrs Mead’s Collection of Medical Veterinary and Cookery Receipts 1688-1727’ crosses over into terra You Are What You Eat. Amongst Mrs Mead’s doubtful remedies is a cure for scurvy… cow urine. In a century where ideas of hygiene and medicine were ludicrous at best and fatal at worst, this was just another example of the blind leading the blind, by using dirt to clean the um… dirty.
It seems that the Dutch in the 17th century interpreted the Bible even more literally than Ned Flanders and devoted an astonishing and slightly worrying amount of time and energy to cleaning their houses. Or at least their maidservants did. The bourgeois Christian household liked to present itself ‘not as a place of vain luxury but as a protected realm of piety, frugality and toil’. But God forbid if Mama or Papa should ever be the ones toiling. While their maids scrubbed and cleaned, their masters and mistresses were left to float airily about the house relishing in the pristine surroundings that their servants’ labour had produced. It makes you wonder, if we were all left to clean up after ourselves, from our houses and gardens to our schools and streets, whether we’d be so pernickety about that spot of dust on the kitchen surface, or that banana peel in the corner.
This idea of cleaning up someone else’s mess has followed us into the 21st century, as shown in the Community section. This section examines the existence of ‘manual scavengers’ in parts of India. Due to inadequate sewage systems, much of the Indian population has to use dry latrines. These non-flush toilets are another gift left by the British Colonialists in India in the late 19th century (public non-flush toilets first appeared in Europe in 1214). As expected, dry latrines require regular cleaning, and ineffective and mainly rhetoric-based government attempts to outlaw manual scavenging means that over one million people still attempt to earn a living by clearing human waste from these facilities, often by hand. Many of those engaged in this manual scavenging are Dalits, the main victims of the legacy of the Hindu caste system. They have been called the ‘broken people’, as it is believed that the presence, touch or even the mere reference to a lower caste is considered to be polluting by the upper caste. The Dalits employed as manual scavengers are considered to be untouchable even by other Dalits.
So whilst people in India do whatever they can to avoid association with these ‘untouchables’, elsewhere in the exhibition shows 18th century English women engaging in a spot of ‘slum tourism’. When I hear the term slum tourism I think of pretentious young rich kids listening to grime music on the street corner with the cool black – or as some infuriatingly like to call them - ‘urban’ kids. But in Victorian times this term had a very different meaning. Slum tourism is described by one of the British Library’s helpful little information placards as the activity where ‘hordes of middle class Victorians enter the poorest and dirtiest metropolitan slum, driven by a combination of voyeurism and philanthropic zeal’. I’ll spare you my rants about how irritating I find this and other acts of rich people creeping into the urban jungle to catch a glimpse of its natives. Yes, UN Ambassador Angelina Jolie, that means you too. Another article, perhaps.
Unsurprisingly, the Museum section based in Dresden focuses on Germany during the Hitler years. As well as answering to that description, it turns out the Nazis were rather interested in ‘scum’ – or at least how they could manipulate its meaning to their cause. The Nazis were experts at using propaganda to promote their Aryan mission and by 1933 they had even corrupted the Hygiene Museum’s innovative ideas about popular health education. The idea of ‘racial hygiene’ was introduced, teaching that impure genes from unclean foreigners had to be eradicated in order to create a physically and intellectually superior race. Fortunately, the exhibition does not delve too far into the politics and ethics of the Nazi regime and instead focuses more on the ‘Museum of Man’ and how its International Hygiene Exhibitions have helped to educate the public about healthcare and human anatomy.
The final section The Land doesn’t quite keep to the whole saving the best until last principle. In fact its lack of interesting or memorable content made it seem like a side-thought to complete a timeline or to fill some empty space. Fortunately, this space was mercifully close to the exit. Based in Staten Island, this rather lack-lustre display looks at the progression of Fresh Kills – the world’s largest municipal landfill until its closure in 2001 – into a public park by 2030. But 19 years is a long time, so hopefully it will have become more interesting by then and it will have earned its place in any future Dirt exhibitions.
Other highlights of the exhibition include the Hospital section, which boasts various forms of corporal secretions such as a glass flask containing urine c.1808, of an unnerving dark brown colour. Another memorable piece was a 53 minute film in English and Hindi, called Q2P and made in 2006 by Paromita Dohra. The film ‘exposes the myth of the global metropolis in relation to gender, class and caste’ and if you have the time (and patience) it is well worth watching. That pretty much sums up my view on the exhibition in general. It might not be the most riveting of displays and won’t exactly evoke the most dramatic of emotions – perhaps just an eyebrow raised here and a soft chortle there – but for its subject matter it does a very good job of keeping the public interested. The success of the exhibition was shown by the crowd of people in attendance during my visit and if you have some free time I would recommend popping in. After all, a little dirt never hurt anyone.
Till 31 August
Part of the Dirt Season from the Wellcome Trust