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Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life


24 March 2011 - 31 August 2011

Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life - exhibition trailer

'Dirt' reveals the fascinating world of filth that remains one of the very last taboos.

Our major new exhibition takes a closer look at something that surrounds us but that we are often reluctant to confront. 'Dirt' travels across centuries and continents to explore our ambivalent relationship with dirt.

Bringing together around 200 artefacts spanning visual art, documentary photography, cultural ephemera, scientific artefacts, film and literature, the exhibition uncovers a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past, and points to the uncertain future of filth, which poses a significant risk to our health but is also vital to our existence.

Following anthropologist Mary Douglas's observation that dirt is 'matter out of place', the exhibition introduces six very different places as a starting point for exploring attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness: a home in 17th-century Delft in Holland, a street in Victorian London, a hospital in Glasgow in the 1860s, a museum in Dresden in the early 20th century, a community in present day New Delhi and a New York landfill site in 2030.

Highlights include paintings by Pieter de Hooch, the earliest sketches of bacteria, John Snow's 'ghost map' of cholera, beautifully crafted delftware, Joseph Lister's scientific paraphernalia and a wide range of contemporary art, from Igor Eskinja's dust carpet, Susan Collis's bejewelled broom and James Croak's dirt window, to video pieces by Bruce Nauman and Mierle Ukeles and a specially commissioned work by Serena Korda.

Part of the Dirt Season from the Wellcome Trust.

This exhibition is free. See opening hours

Photography is not permitted in this exhibition

Image galleries

Image gallery

Visitors during the 17th century frequently expressed surprise at the amount of energy the Dutch devoted to cleaning their homes.

Image gallery

When Joseph Lister arrived at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1861, he would certainly have noticed the stench.

Image gallery

Between May and October 1911, more than five million people flocked to Dresden to visit the First International Hygiene Exhibition.

Image gallery

In many parts of India, inadequate sewage systems mean that much of the population use dry latrines, which require continuous cleaning.

Image gallery

Until 2001 when it closed, Fresh Kills on Staten Island was the world's largest municipal landfill site.

Video gallery

Paromita Vohra's 'Q2P'

Trailer to Vohra's film about toilets and the city. 'Q2P' peers through the dream of Mumabi as a future Shanghai.

The Centre (1948)

The story of the Pioneer Health Centre, Peckham, started before the war by private initiative.



The cleaning team at the Wellcome Trust and Collection are a vital part of our enterprise.


Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life is a Flickr pool is for your images of dirt in everyday life.


How much do you know about dirt?


Lead curator: Kate Forde.