Friday, 1 April 2011
This exhibition at the Wellcome Collection covered six aspects of dirt and cleanliness: a home in the Delft of 1683, a London street in 1854, Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1867, the first International Hygiene exhibition in Dresden 1930, a present day community in India, and a New York landfill site in 2030. All were chosen to reflect Mary Douglas’s observation that dirt is defined by its context.
The earlier sections were of most interest to me and I enjoyed the links between cleanliness and godliness depicted in the section on the Dutch house. The history of the development of the London sewers was very interesting, particularly that the scientific orthodoxy of the day was so fixed on the idea of ‘miasma’ or bad air causing disease that John Snow’s map linking cholera to polluted water was largely ignored. This section also included some interesting advertisements for Victorian cleaning products including one for Hudson’s soap claiming its regular daily use would bring purity, health and satisfaction.
The section on Joseph Lister’s transformation of the Glasgow Royal Hospital showed what a radical effect he had on recovery rates and disease transmission and how the link with miasma causing was finally broken. He introduced a dedicated laundry to the hospital, previously the nurses had done the washing as well as the nursing, and introduced white starched uniforms for the nurses, which gave the impression of purity and cleanliness if nothing else.
The aim of the Dresden Museum was to encourage personal hygiene but it was subverted by the Nazis to included ‘racial hygiene’ with its horrific consequences. The present day Indian section considered what is clean and dirty, the role of scavengers and the role of the unclean other. Staten Island looked to the future of the world’s largest landfill site and how it will eventually be transformed into a public park.
As well as the historical artefacts on display, the exhibition included modern artistic responses to dirt. James Croak’s Dirt window (1991) obliterated by dirt, contrasted nicely with Susan Collis’ broom Waltzer (2007) propped in a corner. Igor Eskinja’s untitled dirt pattern on the floor, which changed as it was walked over, was effective but seemed to me to resemble previous work by Catherine Bertola and Linda Florence, also I would have liked to have known where the dust had come from. Serena Korda’s bricks made from dust entitled Laid to rest (2011) and the accompanying video had more background information, which added to the experience and showed that dirt is indeed defined by its context.