dirt exhibition continued

The Wellcome collection's exhibition Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life examined something which surrounds us but that we are often reluctant to confront. Published to coincide with an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection the revealing book of the same name [1] contains essays, art and photos on our complex relationship with all things dirt-related.


Five writers and a graphic novelist investigate various themes from different outlooks to examine dirt and its contradictions, including personal grooming, the politics of dirt in the home, sanitation, and waste disposal. Virginia Smith writes about conceptions of human excretions in Dirt and the Body; Rosie Cox discusses cleanliness in the domestic space in Dirt and the Home; Brian Ralph makes a connection between dirt and creativity in the Crud Club; and various others describe dirt in our environment and community.


Our relationship with dirt is complicated and conflicting. Dirt can be waste, excrement, rubbish, bacteria and “social outsiders.”  Anthropologist Mary Douglas [2], describes dirt as “matter out of place” (dependent on context for definition) and concerns social boundaries of self and other, inside and outside, pure and contaminated, and proper and taboo.


Dirt is also soil, where plants grow, and to where we all eventually return. Dirt may present serious risks to our health, but it is also crucial to our survival. The post-industrial west hopes to hide it's waste and everything associated with it, behind a technological front. When we throw our rubbish away but have little idea of where it ends up.


A question which arises relevant to my research is: In our current, disposable society, does the battle against dirt depend on a used and half-seen underclass of cleaners?


The modernisation of dirt involves its turn to science and medicalisation (which turns dirt into germs, and social outsiders into policies of racial “purity” and eugenics), pairing hygiene and racial cleansing. The central theme of Dirt…concerns appearances and visibility.


We think something is dirty because it looks dirty. But then again, a century of advertising has persuaded us that dirt is invisible too – just because something looks clean doesn't mean it is.





[1] Smith et al (2011) ‘Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life’


[2] Douglas , M. (2002) ‘Purity and Danger’