Exhibition: Filthy London show digs up the dirt

Fri Mar 25, 2011 7:53am EDT
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By Michelle Martin

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Filth, fecal matter and grime in all its forms are the subject of a new exhibition in London.

"Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life" features around 200 exhibits ranging from vials of urine to air samples and a floor pattern made from dust found in homes, all of which are used to examine humanity's ambivalent relationship with dirt through the ages.

"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," said Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programs at the Wellcome Collection, where the exhibition is being held.

The exhibition takes anthropologist Mary Douglas' view that dirt is "matter out of place" as a cue to investigate human attitudes toward cleanliness.

Exhibits include a blue and white Delft Dutch chamber pot decorated with delicate depictions of country life, a sewer worker's iron pick which dates back to 1890 and five large grey blocks sculpted from human faeces collected by Dalits -- scavengers who remove waste from India's sewers by hand.

Other highlights include an 18th century book containing remedies for various ailments like scurvy, which it suggests should be treated using "cow stale" (urine); footage of bacteria found in dental plaque and a broom which lies inconspicuously in a corner but proves to be a masterpiece encrusted with diamonds and pearls on closer inspection.

"I want people to leave with an expanded awareness of dirt," Kate Forde, curator of the exhibition, told Reuters.

"Dirt is something that's in flux all of the time and it has also powered our economy," she said, noting that London's muck was taken beyond the city's walls to fertilize crops in the medieval ages, while over half of human waste is incinerated to create energy for London's homes and business nowadays.   Continued...

<p>An etching, with watercolour, of a figure dressed in a cholera safety suit, circa 1832. REUTERS/Wellcome Library, London</p>