Dirt, at the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust’s summer blockbuster exhibition for 2011, ‘Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life’, feels like more of a workaday show than their usual fare. The premise is that dirt is everywhere around us, phenomenally important, undervalued, underconsidered and underestimated. Such a huge area of consideration must be difficult to arrange, and Wellcome have resolved this by theming the show into six different urban locations: home, street, hospital, museum, community and land.

The exhibits are less startling on first appearance than we’ve become used to in past exhibitions, but the usual Wellcome trick of disgusting and intriguing in equal measure remains firmly in place; especially when you read that the piece of modernist art in front of you is made entirely of human faeces (5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces by Santiago Sierra, pictured above).

In Street, the exhibition examines the cholera epidemic that swept England in the mid-19th century, revealing as it does so the first piece of information design in the form of John Snow’s ‘ghost map’ from 1855, which marks lives lost to cholera in London’s Soho streets by positioning  stark black bars outside each house; military lines of them, in some cases. William Farr’s ‘Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England 1848-49’ (1852) is similarly beautiful, while depicting similarly chilling statistics.

Another interesting find is ‘London Labour & the London Poor’ by Henry Mayhew (1851), a text which catalogues the lives and professions of London’s metropolitan poor – including ‘pure finders’, who collected dog faeces for tanneries, ‘rag pickers’ (clothes collectors), and ‘night men’ (cease pit emptiers), all of whom scraped a living from recycling the city’s waste and dirt.

Fewer objects are incorporated than usual, but I enjoyed the idea of ‘toshers’, the slang term for sewer hunters operating in the 1850s, and the tosher’s hook on display, dated 1855-65 and crafted from iron, was a highlight. Honourable mentions should also go to the medical tools displayed on loan from the Wellcome Collection itself, including a large brass microscope and a delicate glass curiosity dome encasing a darkened urine sample.

Dirt, at the Wellcome Trust