March 25, 2011 / 10:31 AM / 8 years ago

Exhibition: Filthy London show digs up the dirt

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

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

Serena Korda’s “Laid to Rest” — a stack of red bricks made from clay combined with dust given by members of the public — is one exhibit which engages with the idea of using waste creatively, by evoking the idea that cities are built from dirt, Forde said.

The bricks, which are engraved with the initials of the dust donors, are set to become a focal point in the exhibition — choral incantations will be sung over them ahead of the burial that will return them to the earth from which they came.

Creative solutions to the problem of dirt are also the subject of films and photographs in an exhibit about Staten Island’s Fresh Kills, which was once the world’s largest municipal landfill site but will be transformed into a public park by 2030.

Another of the “Dirt” exhibition’s six rooms packed with visitors is dedicated to a street in London where an outbreak of cholera killed 500 people in 10 days in 1854.

The room includes a vial containing a human excretion known as “rice water” — a cloudy whitish liquid secreted by cholera victims when the disease drained their bodies of nutrients, dehydrated them and caused their kidneys to fail.

The sinister exhibit includes a 19th century etching of a man in a “cholera preventive costume” — an outfit made from rubber, flannel, copper and a sandbag; a vial of vinegar suspended from the nose; flasks of water dangling from the legs; a hat containing a bowl of soup and brass soles constantly filled with warm water.

“Dirt” also documents the Dutch devotion to cleaning in the 17th century, as depicted in Pieter de Hooch’s paintings of women sweeping the streets and their homes, while medical equipment from a Glaswegian hospital in the 1860s is also on display.

The exhibition is open until August 31.

Editing by Steve Addison

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