Captions and transcripts

Our major new exhibition explores our relationship with milk and its place in politics, society and culture.

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Milk is something we’re all familiar with. It provokes strong opinions and vivid memories. Our responses range from delight to disgust.

For many of us, breast milk is the first food we consume as babies. Humans are one of only a few mammals to also drink the milk of other species, and to do so beyond childhood. Although consumer perception is changing, dairy milk is still part of daily routines in most British households.

The choices we make about milk are personal. But it is also a highly politicised liquid that has been used to exert power as well as provide care.

Why has cow’s milk been considered essential to a good diet in the UK? What forces shape the ways we feed our babies? How has milk been used to tie ideas of health to whiteness? How do we value milk and those who produce it?

The story of milk

Dairy production has a long and varied history, but regularly drinking fresh milk is a modern habit. It was popularised in urban areas in Europe and North America in the early 20th century. Mass marketing created a consumer taste for milk.

Nutritional science was used to establish the idea of cow’s milk as an essential food. European colonial occupation and global trade imposed milk-drinking as a cultural norm, spreading it across the world. Around two thirds of the world’s population have some difficulty digesting milk. This is because lactase, the enzyme in human bodies that helps process the sugar in milk (lactose) declines after childhood. Populations who can digest lactose in adulthood are present worldwide, but this trait is most common in white European and North American people.

Governments and the dairy industry have merged ideas of health with economic and political interests. Adverts promote dairy products as ‘natural’, despite the industrial processes involved. How do the stories we’ve been told about milk affect the choices we make as caregivers and consumers?

Untitled (Ohne Titel)

Julia Bornefeld 1995
Textile, coaldust, metal, paint
The artist and ARTantide Gallery, Verona,
Galerie Elisabeth & KlausThoman, Innsbruck, Vienna

This hanging sculpture recalls the shape of a giant udder, stretched and sagging from the weight of carrying milk. Through her imagining of the maternal body, Bornefeld asks us to consider milk-giving from human and animal bodies as a practice of both care and extraction. The sculpture’s rough surface is made by mixing paint with coal dust, a material that is extracted from the earth and used to give energy.


Lucy + Jorge Orta 2010
Aluminium, glass, lacquer
The artists

These jugs, bottles, bags and cartons represent different milk containers used around the world. The inspiration for this artwork was the Peruvian ‘Vaso de Leche’ (Glass of Milk) campaign. This was a food subsidy programme set up by the government in 1983 to provide each school-aged child with a daily glass of milk. Welfare schemes have helped to make milk drinking central to many diets globally.

The New Story of Milk

Ex-Cell-O Corporation (now Elopak) 1956
Colour video, sound, 52 second extract
AV Geeks

This promotional film was made by a milk packaging company. Single-use, disposable packaging helped milk become a widely available commercial product around the world. The film’s narration describes milk as “an integral part of the story of man”, suggesting milk drinking is ancient and universal. Evidence shows that historically many people, including Indigenous American, Southeast Asian, and some African communities, did not milk animals.

Cow creamers

Various makers
Late 18th – early 19th century Ceramic
The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

Cow-shaped creamer jugs were designed for serving milk with tea. Milk or cream is added through a hole in the cow’s back, then poured out through her mouth, with her tail sometimes acting as a handle. In Britain, the image of the contented cow who happily gives her milk appears frequently in popular culture and dairy adverts. Representations of cows reveal how we see and understand them.

The milk problem

As consumer demand for milk grew in Britain’s cities in the 19th century, it created a public health crisis known as ‘the milk problem’. Milk was often contaminated with dirt or diseases, such as tuberculosis. Unclean milk was blamed for high infant mortality rates. In response, dairy farming was reformed around scientific principles of hygiene, standardisation and efficiency. Mechanisation led the industry to become centralised in the hands of larger corporations.

Scientists increasingly used the categories ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ in relation to public health, connecting cleanliness with safety. These categories became linked to social status. 20th-century adverts presented milk as central to an aspirational modern lifestyle. They exclusively featured white, middle- class families as ‘ideal’ consumers, reflecting and targeting divisions in society around race and class.

Some farmers are now returning to earlier methods, such as mixed farming, which offer possibilities for regenerative agriculture. Preserving and trading milk safely without industrial processing is gaining renewed interest from producers and consumers.

Many of these approaches, such as fermentation, have been practised around the world for centuries.

A Cowkeeper’s shop in Golden Lane

George Scharf 1825
Reproduction of a watercolour drawing
© The Trustees of the British Museum, 1862, 0614.120

Before refrigeration, milk could not travel long distances without spoiling. In 19th-century Britain, as urban populations grew, the demand for dairy milk increased. City cowkeepers supplied most of London’s milk. Many of them kept their cows in cramped, unsanitary cowsheds behind their shops. The milk was often contaminated with dirt and diseases.

Pure Milk counter pan

Dairy Outfit Company Ltd. 19th century
Ceramic, galvanised zinc, brass
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 58/64/1-2

This container held milk for sale in a UK dairy shop. The Dairy Outfit Company specialised in hygienic dairying equipment. The pan’s lid was designed to keep out dirt and flies. Its floral pattern shows how dairy companies used images from nature to promote milk as a ‘natural’ and safe food.

Milk is the best of all foods

Ray Williams (designer) for the National Child Welfare Association, USA Around 1920
Wellcome Collection, 2168639i

Contaminated milk was also a problem in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The National Child Welfare Association lobbied US mothers to buy safer milk that had been pasteurised – a process of rapid heating and cooling that kills bacteria. Pasteurisation was slow to gain public acceptance, but by 1920 was common in most US states.

Fall in infant mortality

Theyre Lee-Elliott (designer) for the Ministry of Health, UK
Wellcome Collection, 580228i

Public health measures improved infant mortality for middle-class families in the UK who could afford tuberculosis-tested or pasteurised milk. Those from lower income families, with disproportionately high numbers from racially minoritised communities, often replaced fresh cow’s milk with condensed milk that was longer-lasting and cheaper, but less nutritious.

Take Fresh Milk and Plenty of It banner

Milk and the Railway poster
Attributed to Dora Margaret Batty (designer) for the Empire Marketing Board
Around 1926–33
The National Archives, UK, CO 956/50, CO 956/47

The railways brought more milk into British cities using specially designed milk tank wagons and refrigeration. The British government formed the Empire Marketing Board in 1926 to encourage trade within its empire. At a time of increased poverty and unemployment, its propaganda posters showcased industrial innovations to make Britain appear a progressive, prosperous and powerful nation.

Model of a mule carrying two trays loaded with cheeses

Unidentified maker (Roman, Southern Italy) 3rd or 2nd century BCE
British Museum. Purchased from Alessandro Castellami, 1873,0820.593

Dairy products have a varied and ancient global presence. 20th-century industrial processes of pasteurisation and refrigeration have been seen as essential to safe milk, but there are many other ways to preserve and trade milk safely. Methods like cheese-making don’t rely on purification processes. They work with milk’s material properties, collaborating with bacteria and fungi to enable milk to be stored and consumed throughout the year.

Bacteriology of Milk

Harold Swithinbank and George Newman 1903
Hardback book
Wellcome Collection

These illustrations depict bacteria in cow’s milk and butter. 19th-century scientific discoveries showed that germs transmitted in food could cause diseases. Milk is rich in nutrients that make it an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. The bacteria illustrated here can cause tuberculosis, a disease passed from infected cattle to humans through unpasteurised milk. In 1935, the UK government introduced tuberculosis testing of cattle. This was made compulsory in the 1950s.

Paper labels for annatto food colouring

WellcomeCollection, EPH67:1, EPH67:2

In the 19th century, milk from cows grazing on grass in the spring was richer than milk produced in winter when feed was scarcer. Annatto was a yellow vegetable dye added to give milk a consistently creamy tone all year round. Today, processes of homogenisation evenly distribute the fat content in milk and are partly responsible for its whiteness. Cheesemakers still use annatto to give their products a yellow, orange or red colour.

Metal lactometer with case

Dairy Supply Co. Ltd. Around 1930s
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 84/30/1-3

Lactometers check the amount of water in milk by measuring its density. 19th-century sellers often watered milk down and then thickened it with flour or chalk. To combat this, the UK government passed a regulation in 1901 that defined “natural” milk as containing at least 3% fat. Milk today is a standardised, processed product. Unprocessed milk looks and tastes differently depending on the age of the cow’s calf and the cow’s breed and diet.

The bureau of wet nurses in Paris

After Charles Brocas 1822
Wellcome Collection, 17481i

Breastfeeding was the safest method of infant feeding in the 19th century. Wet nurses – women who breastfeed another person’s child – offered an alternative for mothers unable or unwilling to breastfeed. As cleaner cow’s milk became available, wet nursing in Europe declined. This image shows French wet nurses preparing to return to their countryside homes with their assigned babies. Wet nursing was a paid occupation for these women. For others, it was enforced unpaid labour. Enslaved African women in Europe and the Americas were separated from their own children to wet nurse white infants.

Milk. The nation’s cheapest food!

Ashley Havinden (designer) for the Milk Marketing Board 1930s
Reproduction of gouache sketch
From archive file: ‘Ideas for Milk Poster’.
National Galleries of Scotland.
© Estate of Ashley Havinden.

This sketch was from the first Milk Marketing Board campaign. It used bold, dynamic design to change the public’s opinion of milk by associating it with a modern British lifestyle. Advertising agency W.S. Crawford created the campaign. William Crawford believed advertising could be used to ‘improve’ public taste and values.

Clean milk production

National Institute for Research in Dairying 1920s–30s
Printed textile
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, D2 NIRD AD9/15

In 1912 the Board of Agriculture established the National Institute for Research in Dairying (NIRD) at the University of Reading to apply scientific principles to the production of milk. Cleanliness  was central to the dairy industry’s modernisation. The NIRD educated dairy farmers on cow health, the location, construction and cleanliness of the cowshed, and dairy utensil hygiene.

Cotton milking coat

Clare’s Textiles Ltd. 1940s–50s
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 2012/392/2

Stainless steel milking can

Mid-20th century
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading,78/28

Half-pint glass milk bottles from the National Institute for Research in Dairying (NIRD)

Around 1920s-30s
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 96/18/14, 96/18/20, 96/18/22

Milking cluster

Late 20th century
Aluminium, acrylic, rubber
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 2023/13

The desire for clean milk led to technological innovation. Manufacturers redesigned milk cans, moving the mouth off-centre to prevent dirt falling in. Labour-intensive hand-milking was replaced by automatic vacuum milking machines. They guaranteed a clean, closed environment that protected the milk from dirt and dust in the milking shed. White milking coats reinforced the idea of dairying as a scientific practice. Glass bottles showed off the condition and cleanliness of the milk inside. They were designed to be sterilised and reused.

National Diploma in Dairying certificate

The Royal Agricultural Society of England and The Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland 1922
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 2013/20

The British Dairying Institute at the University of Reading was at the forefront of the government’s ‘Clean Milk Campaign’. Students were trained in the “science and practice of dairying”. This included chemistry and bacteriology as well as skills such as milking and cheesemaking. This Diploma in Dairying was awarded to Anne Hall, who went on to run classes to teach farmers clean milk production.

Regulations and Syllabus of the Examinations in 1915 for the National Diplomas in the Science and Practice of Agriculture and Dairying

National Agricultural Examination Board 1914
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, D 2NIRD AD9/15

Early formalised education by the Royal Agricultural Society emphasised the importance of scientific principles. With the modernisation of the agricultural industry, many traditional farming methods were abandoned. The benefits of some of these are now being recognised. This includes a return to mixed farming, where soil health is improved by combining crop growing with livestock.

Typescript letter from A. Brock, Bristol, to Lord Woolton, dated 5 October 1940

The National Archives, UK, JV4/161

UK farmers supplied milk to the Milk Marketing Board or large commercial dairies, who collected it from the farm gate. This farmer was unable to arrange collection of the milk from his six cows and, receiving no response from the Milk Marketing Board, wrote to Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, to ask for help. The Milk Marketing Board (1933-94) was a producer- run organisation that controlled milk production and guaranteed a minimum price for farmers.

Milk testing forms

Dartington Hall Estate 1947-52
Dartington Trust, C/F/10/A&D

Milk was tested for diseases, bacteria, and proportions of fat and protein. Milk that failed the tests could not be sold, meaning farmers lost income. Dartington Hall Estate in Devon was created  in the 20th century as a social experiment trialling  scientific farming methods. Its co-founder Leonard Elmhirst trained under Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore who established Palli Samgathana Vibhaga (the Institute of Rural Reconstruction) in India in 1922.

‘Modern milk pails’, from On Conditions Necessary to Obtain a Clean Milk Supply

Sheridan Delépine 1918
Hardback book
Wellcome Collection

‘The Archers’ radio drama, episode from 8 January 2015

Sound, 1 minute 32 second extract

‘The Archers’ was first broadcast in 1951. It was originally produced with input from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to spread information to farmers and encourage increased agricultural productivity. In this extract from a 2015 episode, farmers weigh up the benefits and drawbacks of robotic milking machines. They discuss increased milk yield and decreased mastitis – a painful inflammation of the cow’s udder – as well as the lessening of direct contact with their cows.

Museum mural

Andrew Davidson 2006
Gouach on paper
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 2006/65

The Museum of English Rural Life commissioned this painting to depict changes in English farming from the 1850s (right) to the 1950s (left). It shows a shift towards mechanisation and fewer farm labourers. Today dairy farmers rely heavily on migrant labour. From 2016 to 2021, 42% of UK dairy farms recruited workers from abroad, mostly from Poland and Latvia. The end of free movement following Brexit has worsened agricultural labour shortages.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux kneeling before the Virgin and Christ Child

Andrea Scacciati the Younger after Bernardina Poccetti
Wellcome Collection, 3310i

In Christian beliefs, milk has symbolised spiritual as well as physical nourishment. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was gifted divine grace through the Virgin Mary’s milk. As the saint knelt to pray before her statue, he received a squirt of milk from her breast, granting him wisdom and eloquence.

Atalanta Fugiens

Michael Maier 1618
Leather-bound book
Wellcome Collection, EPB/B/3980

The representation of dairy milk as a ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ product in advertising campaigns draws on an association with breast milk. This 17th-century text describes mother’s milk as a life-giving fluid, nourishing and transmitting essential qualities to the child. The motto above the illustration translates as: “The earth is her/his nurse”. In European mythology and Christian religious imagery, a lactating woman often represents fertility, charity and abundance.

The Daily Round: The Story of Milk Production and Distribution

Express Dairy 1954
Yorkshire and North East Film Archives, 19435
Digital video, colour, sound 2 minute 12 second extract

This promotional film shows the Express Dairy company at the forefront of dairy innovation. Their extensive facilities housed expensive, state-of-the-art equipment for inspecting, testing and processing large quantities of milk. They also had their own branded collection vans and railway tankers. As demand for milk grew, the processing and distribution of milk and dairy products became centralised in the hands of large dairy companies.

Every member of our family drinks milk

H. P. Hood 1950s
Wellcome Collection, 679728i

The UK dairy industry looked to the US’s success in increasing milk consumption through powerful advertising campaigns. These campaigns promoted daily rituals of milk drinking and associated them with a modern, North American lifestyle. Images of affluent, white families linked consumer aspiration with a European-derived diet. The underlining of “our” in this poster suggests a sense of shame for those who did not – or could not, for reasons of income or difficulties digesting lactose – conform to these supposed cultural norms.

Knowat Ration Calculator

F. Knowles & S. J. Watson of the East Anglian Institute of Agriculture 1920–40
Cardboard, metal
Dial gauge for calculating milking performance
Unidentified maker 20th centuryPlastic

Ear tag for cattle

Allflex 1990
Plastic, metal, rubber, electronic components
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 2012/388/1-2, 88/6/1, 2022/86

High levels of production required specialist knowledge of animal nutrition and health. Ration calculators showed the amount of food a cow needed to maintain high milk yield and quality. Dial gauges assessed how many milking machines were needed by comparing the average herd milk yield, the type and size of milking parlour and the available work time. Today, dairy farmers use electronic ear tags to identify individual cows, control their access to feed and the milking parlour, and predict health problems.

Three cardboard milk bottle tops

Wellcome Collection, EPH89A:15, EPH89A:16, EPH89A:4

By the 1940s pasteurisation was becoming widespread in the UK, but much milk was still sold raw. Dairy companies were keen to promote their products’ safety. Their messaging often conflated the ‘naturalness’ of milk with the manufactured purity offered by industrial processing.

Penny lick ice-cream glass

19th century

In the 19th century, street vendors sold ice-cream in small, thick glasses. Customers would lick them clean and return them for reuse. Many vendors were migrants from Italy. An 1879 British medical report blamed the glasses and their “poisonous Italian ice- cream” for spreading cholera. In reality, a lack of washing facilities meant the glasses were hard to keep clean, but the association of migrants with disease and contamination was typical of this time. This idea continues to fuel racist anti-immigration rhetoric in Britain.

The Cows that give us Milk

Helen Stone for the National Dairy Council 1960
Paperback book

In 1955 the UK’s National Dairy Council began producing educational materials for classroom use. These included books for children learning to read. Images of cows in green fields create ideas of what dairy farming should look like that children carry into adulthood. Consumer expectations influence the choices dairy farmers make and how milk products are advertised.

The Farm Animals (Les Animaux de la ferme)

Marcel Broodthaers 1974
Lithographic print
Tate: Purchased 1980, P07385

Broodthaers shows how ‘objective’ scientific categories reflect the values of the individuals and institutions that create them. In these prints, breeds of cattle are laid out in a grid, with the names of cars underneath. From the 1800s on, farmers specifically bred and genetically engineered cattle for improved dairy production. Since 1975 the amount of milk produced per cow has increased 100%. The physical demands of high milk production have caused cow health problems which UK breeding programmes are now addressing.

Drinka Pinta Milka Day

Patrick Tilley (designer) for the Milk Marketing Board 1958
The designer

“Drinka Pinta Milka Day” was a slogan from an influential advertising campaign which portrayed working-class families and young professionals enjoying their daily ‘pintas’. Claiming it made them “first class”, the campaign successfully raised milk consumption in lower-income households. Featuring exclusively white families, it began in the same year as the Notting Hill race riots. These were a series of violent attacks against the Caribbean population in the area, stemming from hostility towards much- needed migration to Britain after World War II.

New Mourning II

Clementine Keith-Roach 2023
The artist and Ben Hunter Gallery
Plaster, wood and steel armature, acrylic paint, resin

This sculpture marks the separation of mother and child during weaning as both a time of grief and a new beginning. Interested in the long history of vessels as substitutes for the mother’s body, Keith-Roach created this sculpture the day after she stopped breastfeeding. The cast figures record the final traces of milk in her body. The fragmented forms suggest the dual nature of motherhood in which the body sustains both itself and another.

The Art of Milk

Gemma Burditt 2016
Digital animation, 6 minutes
The artist.
Sound design by Jessica Marlowe.
Originally commissioned by The Maltings, Berwick and the Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle University

In this animation farmers from Northumberland reflect on industry shifts such as fluctuating milk prices, changing government legislation and the 1984 introduction of milk quotas in Europe. These quotas capped the amount of milk a farmer could sell every year. Many farmers juggle commercial decisions with the inherited responsibility of maintaining their family farm for future generations.

Enjoy a pint of natural goodness

National Milk Publicity Council
Around 1970s–80s
Dairy UK

As milk’s production became more mechanised, adverts promoted it as a ‘natural’ product. They drew on romanticised perceptions of the British countryside as a place of simplicity and goodness.

The Gleaners

Jean François Millet 1855–56
Victoria and Albert Museum.
Bequeathed by Constantine Alexander Ionides, CAI.311

A gleaner is a person who collects small amounts of grain or other produce missed by harvesters. Today, there are still gleaning networks that distribute surplus fruit and vegetables from UK farms to food banks and community kitchens. Around 16% of farm produce is wasted due to factors such as not being the right shape or size, or inaccurate forecasting by retailers of how much produce they will buy.

Milking Practice with Artificial Udders

Evelyn Mary Dunbar 1940
Oil painting on canvas
IWM (Imperial War Museums), Art.IWMARTLD766

Recruits from the Women’s Land Army (WLA) learn to milk cows using rubber teats fitted to a canvas bag filled with water. The WLA replaced male farm workers during World War II. Historically, women undertook much of the laborious work on dairy farms.


Sarah Pucill 1995
Digital video from 16mm, colour, sound 5 minutes 23 seconds
The artist and LUX, London

Pucill’s film disrupts the sanitised image of milk by re-entangling it with the sensuality of the body that produces it – here represented by masses of dark, animated hair. Slithering across a neatly set table, finger-like tufts of hair poke and pierce the white tablecloth, upturning containers of milk, cream and butter whose contents seep into the encroaching strands.

Scientific motherhood

The idea that women need scientific advice to successfully care for and feed their infants took hold in Europe and North America in the late 19th century. It stemmed from the rise of paediatrics and was reinforced through adverts for newly available infant formulas.

While a scientific approach brought benefits to maternal and child health, it also reshaped motherhood. Feeding schedules applied discipline to infant nourishment and milk became measured and monitored. Health visitors and doctors used babies’ weights to track their development, as adverts claimed baby formula was a ‘perfect substitute’ for breast milk. Paediatric research was developed around white women’s bodies, leading to biases in maternal health care.

This new approach produced a standardised image of motherhood that persists. Perceived ‘failure’ to meet these standards can create feelings of shame, particularly around infant feeding. Today, more inclusive practices are being developed that understand how infant feeding is affected by factors including family, race, workplace, income and healthcare systems.

Postcards and photographs collected by Ronald MacKeith

From ‘Breastfeeding files’, Dec1948–July1970
Wellcome Collection, PP/MKH/A/8/1

Paediatrician Ronald MacKeith collected images of historical artworks depicting idealised scenes of breastfeeding to use for teaching purposes. Many portray Christian imagery of the Madonna and Child. He notes that Tintoretto’s painting The Origins of the Milky Way shows the draught (or let down) reflex in action “causing a spray of milk from the nipple”. European ideas about breastfeeding derive from images that associate motherhood with spiritual goodness and innocence.

Four polaroid photographs of expression technique

Around 1950
Wellcome Collection, PP/MKH/A/8/1

These photographs were taken to illustrate how to hand-express breast milk. They were used in the 1951 book Infant Feeding and Feeding Difficulties by paediatricians Ronald MacKeith and Philip Rainsford Evans. The exclusive use of images of white bodies in teaching manuals made white, Northern European physiology and behaviour the norm for training medical students. This has led to biased clinical decision-making and extreme differences in maternal health outcomes.

Inclusive feeding aids

Various makers 21st century
Wool, plastic, nylon
Vanisha Virgo, Mama and me doula services

Many British breastfeeding resources lack information about how breast and lactation conditions appear on non-white skin colours. Misdiagnosis of conditions such as mastitis can lead to pain and early stopping of breastfeeding. Maternal health professionals, such as doulas, are now making and sharing more inclusive resources. Crochet breast models reflecting a range of skin colours are used to teach hand expression and latching. Feeding aids support a variety of methods. These include a nursing supplementer, used to feed babies via a thin tube taped to the nipple or finger.

Happy Motherhood

Cow & Gate 1950s
Wellcome Collection, P10024

Formula companies published advice booklets for mothers on how to care for and feed their infant. They traded on breastfeeding imagery to promote the company’s products. Psychologists today are exploring how complex social and cultural messaging impacts on new mothers. The serene image and use of the word “happy” on this pamphlet contrast with the difficult, messy realities of infant feeding. This gap leaves many parents poorly prepared and can reinforce feelings of failure.

Nurse the baby. Your protection against trouble

Erik Hans Krause (designer) for the WPA Federal Art Project, USA
Reproductions of silkscreen posters Library of Congress

Be clean in everything that concerns your baby

Erik Hans Krause (designer) for the WPA Federal Art Project
USA Reproductions of silkscreen posters Library of Congress

Let the toddler’s first steps lead to the welfare centre

Ministry of Health
Around 1937
Wellcome Collection, EPH++1:6

These 1930s government posters from the UK and USA present maternal and child welfare as public healthconcerns.Theircommandinglanguageimplies mothersneedtobetaughthowtoraisetheirchildren safely. Imagery such as the pristine white swan and blond child suggest these maternal health services primarily served white, middle-class women. They would have been inaccessible for many, whether physically or for reasons of race or class.

Increase in use of Glaxo; Decline in infant mortality

Glaxo 1921
Advert featured in Punch magazine
History of Advertising Trust, HAT20/2/1/1/8/8

Sealing Tins at Glaxo Foods

Leslie Cardew (photographer) for The Daily Herald
Science Museum Group, 1983-5236/145

Formula milk was first developed in the 1860s. These products were called formula because they were based on precise mathematical calculations of how to alter the fat, protein and sugar in cow’s milk to most closely resemble human milk. Glaxo began to produce dried milk for babies in 1904, reassuring parents of the safety of its products by highlighting that they were produced in sanitary factories. This advert features a graph claiming increasing Glaxo sales corresponded with decreasing infant mortality.

The Alexandra Feeding Bottle

S. Maw, Son & Thompson 1870-80
Glass, rubber, metal, cardboard
King’s College London Archive, TH/EPH7/11

The 19th century saw a rise in products targeted at mothers, including specially designed feeding bottles. These were advertised as safe and hygienic, but this was not always the case. The long tubes of Alexandra feeding bottles were hard to clean. Accumulations of bacteria caused infant illness, lending them the name ‘murder bottles’.

Measuring spoon for Glaxo powdered infant formula

Around 1930s-40s

As medical and commercial advice increasingly undermined British mothers’ practical experience and expertise, many sought reassurance in the measurements and data of science. Formula milk came with branded spoons that enabled mothers to record how much their babies drank.

Sample tin for Glaxo powdered infant formula

Around 1910s
GSK Heritage Archives, 2/5/6/3/36

Weight card for your baby: Sister Laura’s baby food modifies fresh milk

Around 1930
Wellcome Collection, EPH637A:29

Endorsement from the medical community encouraged parents to buy infant formula products. Formula companies supplied paediatricians with free samples and branded items such as weight cards to share with new mothers. These stressed the products’ success in producing healthy babies.

Portable baby scales

Around 1930s Crocheted cotton, metal
Wellcome Collection, SA/HVA/G.1/8

These scales were used by a health visitor on home visits to new mothers in the 1930s. The scale is calibrated for boys and inscribed “GIRLS ¼ TO ½ lb LESS”. The health visitor compared the baby’s weight with a standard for that age. Weight standards do not acknowledge differences that can stem from health conditions or socio-economic status. They also do not allow for variations in birth weight among different UK populations. Statistics show that Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Black African infants are more likely to have lower birth weights than white infants.

Babycare Chart

Around 1985-95
Wellcome Collection, EPH++80:4

Formula companies distributed branded charts associating their products with ‘healthy’ growth. In the 1980s and 1990s, the NHS used charts based on data from British formula-fed babies. In 2009 they changed to World Health Organisation charts based on data from 8440 “healthy, non-deprived, breastfed children of mothers who did not smoke” in Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman and the USA. Some physicians and academics were concerned that formula-fed babies might be considered overweight when compared with the new standards.

Feeding and Care of Baby

Frederic Truby King.
Issued by The Society for the Health of Women and Children
Paperback book
Wellcome Collection

The publications of child welfare reformer Dr Frederic Truby King became an authoritative source of childrearing advice in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. King believed in eugenics, the idea that society could be ‘improved’ through selective breeding. He promoted strict routines for feeding babies every four hours and claimed too much physical contact would spoil the child. These ideas have now been discredited.

Let the toddler’s first steps lead to the welfare centre. The right thing… for your baby

Ministry of Health Around 1937-38 Printed leaflet
The National Archives, UK, MH 82/1

This leaflet encourages mothers to attend the welfare centre, suggesting that without expert guidance they may be “ruining” their infants’ health. Motherhood is described as “a skilled job” that needs to be learnt. The illustrations convey this information as friendly advice from one mother to another. While welfare centres offered much useful support, the message that mothers could not successfully parent without a doctor’s help risked undermining their confidence.

Queer Nursing

Liesel Burisch 2020
Paperback book
The artist

Queer Nursing is an inclusive guide to nursing. It foregrounds the role of other parenting figures and friends in supporting nursing and sharing responsibility for childcare work. Subjects covered include milk-sharing networks, nursing in public, adoptive parenting and induced lactation for all gender identities. Burisch uses the term ‘nursing’ as an inclusive way to describe feeding with human milk.

Let Down Reflex

Ilana Harris-Babou 2023
Video installation, bespoke seating, wallpaper
14 minutes 16 seconds
The artist.
Commissioned by Wellcome Collection

The artist’s mother, sister and niece reflect on breastfeeding and the passing down of maternal knowledge. The soundtrack is based on a lullaby said to have been sung by an enslaved Black mother separated from her baby to wet nurse a white child. The title Let Down Reflex refers to the physical process of milk releasing within the breast. It also points to extreme failings within Black maternal healthcare. Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women in the US and four times more likely in the UK.

Chocolate Milk Goddesses

Lakisha Cohill 2017
The artist

Cohill created this portrait of the Chocolate Milk Mommies peer support group in Alabama to celebrate Black breastfeeding. She presents the mothers as powerful goddesses. Black women in the US are over-represented in schemes distributing free formula and less likely to receive lactation support following birth. Policies that impact Black mothers’ ability to breastfeed originated in the practice of separating enslaved African women from their infants to work or wet nurse white children. This traumatic history has led to racial differences in breastfeeding rates and negative associations within some US Black communities.

Good health

In 20th-century Britain, wartime recruitment revealed widespread malnourishment. Scientists began to identify the nutrients in food and study the relationship between diet and diseases. Dairy milk was hailed as ‘nature’s perfect food’ because of its unique mix of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and fat.

Milk was held up as an icon of ‘good health’ by both the British state and the dairy industry. It became embedded in British diets through welfare schemes such as school milk and was considered key to strengthening the nation during World War II. European and North American nutritional science was used to justify the export of tinned milk and dairy cattle throughout the British Empire. Associations between dairy products and whiteness are still being used today by far-right political groups to assert racist ideas of white ‘strength’.

As the health of the British nation was tied to the health of the individual, choosing a ‘good’ diet became seen as a mark of responsible citizenship. Today, the narrative of personal choice around what we eat hides the social and economic inequalities that limit access to food.

Energy Foods: These foods contain … Fat, Starch, Sugar

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1954
The National Archives, UK, INF 13 286/4

Protective Foods 1: These foods contain Vitamin A for Growth and Eyesight; these foods contain Vitamin D for Strong Bones and Teeth

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1954
National Archives, INF13286/5

Body Building Foods: These foods contain ... Calcium for Bones and Teeth, Protein for Muscular Tissue, Iron for Blood

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1954
National Archives, INF13286/3

Vitamins and minerals were discovered in food in the early 20th century by scientists searching for connections between diet and diseases. The new science of nutrition led the British government t o introduce guidelines for healthy eating. These divided foods into three essential functions – energy, protective and body building. Milk, butter and cheese featured across all three food groups. This new approach to eating constructed a singular idea of a ‘good’ diet and did not account for factors such as income or cultural preference.

The weekly ration for two people, UK, 1943

Ministry of Information 1943
IWM (Imperial War Museums), D14667

The British government introduced food rationing in January 1940. World War II had led to national shortages, and rationing was intended to make sure everyone got their fair share. This photograph shows the amounts of milk, sugar, bacon, cheese, butter and chocolate received by two people per week in Britain. It includes 7 pints of milk. The Ministry of Food described milk as “an essential part of our war food policy”.

Food and the People

John Boyd Orr 1943
Hardback book
Wellcome Collection

In Food and the People, nutrition expert Boyd Orr wrote that wartime rationing had improved public health in Britain by more evenly distributing food. He argued malnutrition was caused not by a lack of food, but by inequalities in society. Calling on the government to keep food prices low after the war, he proposed a World Food Board to control surplus and avoid shortages. The UK and USA rejected his proposal in 1947. Today UK food policy is fragmented across 16 different government departments. This affects what food is available and who gets to eat it.

Food, Health and Income: Report on a Survey of Adequacy of Diet in Relation to Income

John Boyd Orr 1936
Hardback book
Wellcome Collection

World of Plenty

Ministry of Information 1942
Digital video, black and white, sound
1 minute 11 second extract
© Crown / Courtesy of the BFI National Archive

The British Ministry of Information produced this educational film showing how the UK and USA manufactured, distributed and consumed food during World War II. The film reminds viewers of their duty to keep themselves healthy by eating well so the nation can remain strong. It suggests that the state in turn must provide its people with the means to keep healthy.

Nutrition and diet for children

National Milk Publicity Council (possibly) 1944
Wellcome Collection, 680211i

The dairy industry produced this educational poster series to promote milk’s health benefits. The first poster compares animals fed different amounts of milk in scientific studies, claiming that “milk made the difference”. The images of children suggest that having a white, athletic, slim body and characteristics such as height and energy indicate ‘good health’. The accompanying captions were produced as part of the poster series.

16. (a) These pigs are sisters, same age, same litter. They were the same size at weaning. Both ate unlimited corn, oats and barley. In addition, one pig had milk daily and grew large and strong and smooth haired. But the other little pig had none!

16. (b) These chickens are sisters, same age, same hatching. After hatching, both ate unlimited wheat, oats, corn and millet. In addition one chicken had milk daily and grew large and strong with good plumage. The other had no milk.

16.(c) The two puppies are brothers, same age, same litter. They were the same size at weaning. Both ate unlimited cooked cereal and bread, plus some meat. In addition one puppy had some milk daily and grew large and strong. The other had no milk.

7. Ronald at 14 has an athletic figure with his broad chest, straight legs and upright back. Good nutrition takes care of him and gives him stamina.

15. Linda and Doris go for a walk. Linda is full of vitality, watch her step it out. Doris is tired and somehow her feet won’t get along although she can’t tell why. But the answer is good nutrition makes all the difference.

Pasteurized process cheddar cheese box

United States Department of Agriculture
Around 1980s–90s

Limited edition Government Cheese hat

André Robert Lee and Aaron Pollock (designers) 2012

Film director André Robert Lee discusses his Government Cheese merchandise range

Audio, 4 minutes

‘Government cheese’ is processed cheese provided to US welfare recipients through food assistance programmes. It was made using surplus milk which the US government is required to buy from farmers. Food assistance schemes in the US contain disproportionately high numbers of low-income Black and Latine families (a term used to describe people of Latin American cultural or ethnic identity). People from these communities have a higher risk of serious health conditions associated with saturated fats. Government cheese has become a pop cultural icon. It features in lyrics by musicians such as Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z who use it to refer to the experience of financial hardship in their youth.

National Dried Milk tin

Welfare Foods Service
Around 1950s

Keeping in Touch. Bulletin No.11, May 1946

Ministry of Food 1946
The National Archives, UK, MAF 102/15

Welfare Food Scheme leaflet: Free Milk Tokens for people receiving Income Support

Department of Health 1993
Wellcome Collection

Milk has been central to UK welfare schemes since wartime rationing. From 1940 the Welfare Food Scheme distributed National Dried Milk to mothers and young children, regardless of income. In 2006 the NHS’s Healthy Start Service replaced the scheme. It offers vouchers for specified food items, including milk, to people receiving income support. The practice of giving vouchers to buy specific foods – rather than money – controls access to food and denies choice to the recipients.

Typescript memo regarding UK gift of surplus tinned condensed milk to UNICEF

LJ Evans
The National Archives, UK, FO371/112509

This Foreign Office memo offers surplus milk products from the UK government to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for distribution overseas. It calls it a contribution in kind and suggests “that there would naturally be some publicity about the offer”. Drying, condensing and canning processes had allowed Britain to export milk throughout its empire. In later decades, foreign aid donations often followed the same routes.

Ever Felt Dumped On? Make Trade Fair

Greg Williams (photographer) and Benenson Janson (agency) for Oxfam International
Around 2004

Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign enlisted celebrities such as R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe to draw attention to the harmful dumping of surplus products including milk, wheat and coffee. North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia have disposed of surplus milk through foreign aid programmes or exported it to low- and middle- income countries including Jamaica and Mali. This practice undercuts local farmers and creates a dependency on imported foods.

Cut Out Nescafé

Baby Milk Action Around 1990s
Hand-printed poster
Wellcome Collection, SA/NCT/E/3/4/2

1977 saw the launch of an international consumer boycott against Nestlé which was aggressively marketing infant formula to mothers in countries including Nigeria, Kenya and Malaysia. Promoting formula over breastfeeding caused significant infant health problems. Many mothers could not afford the necessary quantities of formula, so their babies became malnourished. Limited access to clean water and sterilising equipment led to severe infections. This poster came with a list of ‘Ideas for Action’ to support the boycott.

Major Elliot, Minister of Agriculture, lifting up two children drinking milk in his arms

George Woodbine (photographer) for The Daily Herald
Science Museum Group, 1983-5236/E00507

The National Milk Publicity Council started the Milk- in-Schools scheme in the 1920s to increase sales and develop a taste for milk in young consumers. Adverts drew on scientific studies that claimed milk was essential to children’s growth, putting social pressure on families to pay for the scheme. It was later taken up by the British government.

Children campaigning against planned cuts in free school milk, May 1971

Marx Memorial Library, 60002 PHOTO/SUB/Education

Personal accounts of school milk reveal mixed feelings. Many resented being forced to drink milk when they did not like it or it made them ill. Some describe milk arriving frozen and melting it on the radiator, where it became warm and unpleasant. Despite this, there was public outcry when school milk was ended in secondary schools in 1968. This was followed in 1971 by the withdrawal of milk for children over seven by soon-to-be Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Critics argue school milk distracted from government policies that caused the poverty and malnutrition used to justify it.

Drink more milk. Milk made the difference

National Milk Publicity Council Around 1927
Postcard with annotations
The National Archives, UK, FD 1/3792

This promotional postcard from the National Milk Publicity Council appears to illustrate the findings of a 1926 study into the benefits of milk, funded by the Medical Research Council. The study claimed milk made children grow taller and gain weight. It was conducted on white boys “from the slums” of London, living in a Dr Barnardo’s orphanage. The Medical Research Council requested the postcard be withdrawn because the image misrepresented the growth from different diets.

School milk 1/3 pint glass bottle

National Milk Publicity Council
Around 1928

Six Million Gallons More!

National Milk Publicity Council Annual Report 1929
The National Archives, UK, FD 1/3792

Panorama: School Milk

BBC 1971
Digital video, colour, sound
39 second extract

Child malnutrition is often the result of low income. Despite this, it is frequently attributed to poor mothering in politics and the media. British adverts promoted milk as good nutritional value for money, but it was more expensive than filling foods such as bread and potatoes.

Milk: The Backbone of Young Britain

James Fitton (designer) for the Ministry of Food 1945-51
IWM (Imperial War Museums), Art.IWM PST 4944

The UK government used milk as a symbol of good childhood health. It drew on scientific studies claiming milk-drinking led to greater growth. Strong and healthy children were seen as essential to Britain’s future. This poster was produced at a time when Britain was losing power as territories from its empire were becoming independent countries.

For Health… eat some food from each group… every day!

United States Department of Agriculture 1943
Wellcome Collection, 679444i

This early US government nutritional guidance aimed to get people eating more vitamin-rich foods during wartime. The words “U.S. needs us strong” above the white family illustrated in the centre suggest a healthy diet is a patriotic duty. Milk and milk products have their own dedicated food group despite the fact that two thirds of the adult population worldwide have some difficulty digesting milk. In the US, Black, Asian, Latine and Indigenous communities experience this most commonly, highlighting a racial bias in the guidelines.

Food For Thought

Ford Motor Company 1921
Digital video, black and white, silent 2 minute 48 second extract
National Archives and Records Administration

British and European colonisers introduced cattle breeds from Northern Europe. This educational film links higher milk consumption with colonial ideas of ’civilisation’ and prosperity. It recommends selective breeding to produce cows with ‘well-proportioned’ bodies capable of producing large quantities of milk. The eugenics movement also believed the human race could be ‘improved’ through selective breeding. These ideas were gaining significant support in the UK and US at this time. This film contains racist language.

Butter. Vital for Growth and Health

National Dairy Council, Chicago Around 1920s
The National Archives, UK, FD 1/3792

This butter advert quotes US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (later a US President) saying,“The white race cannot survive without dairy products.” Hoover was a supporter of the eugenics movement which he saw as ‘improving’ the physical, mental and social health of the nation. Racist quotes such as this were used in dairy marketing in the 1920s and 1930s. They made connections between milk, physical development and the health of the ‘white race’. This pamphlet contains racist language.

My Reflections

National Dairy Council, Chicago 1947

In the 1940s the US National Dairy Council produced marketing materials for health education in schools that encouraged ‘correct’ social behaviour. This personal health checklist booklet, aimed at teenage girls, offers advice on topics such as social etiquette and dating.

Milk Zine

Deanna Wang 2022
Risoprint zine
The designer

The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for both the national dietary guidelines and the success of the US dairy industry. This zine explores this conflict and highlights the powerful lobbying influence of the dairy industry on US nutritional policy. It also points to the impact of government-funded adverts such as the influential ‘Got Milk?’ campaign that featured a range of celebrities sporting milk moustaches. This campaign aimed to reach Black and Latine consumers by enlisting celebrities including Beyoncé, Serena and Venus Williams, and Sofia Vergara.

Economical Dishes for Workers

The National Food Reform Association 1913

The National Food Reform Association promoted economical cooking at a time of widespread poverty. Aimed at workers, these recipes use cheese, beans and pulses as sources of protein instead of costlier meat. The Association saw vegetarian eating as a way to improve the individual’s moral wellbeing through avoiding excess and practising self-control.

To Housewives

National Milk Publicity Council Around 1920s-30s

In the UK, responsibility for the family’s health has largely fallen on women. This postcard is addressed “to housewives”. Issued by the National Milk Publicity Council, it offers advice on healthy eating. It recommends families allocate the largest proportion of their food budget, 27%, to milk. It also reminds readers that “Milk Recipes can be had from your Milkman”.

Family Meals and Catering: A Cookery Booklet for Housewives

British Medical Association 1935
Paperback booklet
Wellcome Collection

Published by the British Medical Association, this cookery booklet is an early example of UK dietary guidance. It used the new science of nutrition to create daily menus for three weeks. Many of the recipes included milk, such as macaroni cheese and baked milk pudding. The authors intended the amounts and types of foods to model ‘correct’ eating habits.

Milk Brings Out The Best In You

Milk Marketing Board
Around 1980s
Digital video, colour, sound, 36 seconds

A sculpture of a mother breastfeeding her baby, advertising national childhood week in France

Ministry of Public Health and Population, National Committee for Children
Wellcome Collection, 29312i

This public heath poster portrays breastfeeding as a mother’s patriotic ‘duty’. This idea stemmed from 18th century theories of European philosophers, moralists and physicians that breastfeeding infants would create healthy, loyal citizens, and build a strong nation.

Maquette for Mother and Child

Henry Moore 1952
The Provost and Fellows of Worcester College, Oxford, 335

Adverts and maternal health resources often represent the relationship between mother and child as harmonious and nurturing. Moore’s sculpture challenges this idea by casting motherhood as a power struggle, in which the ravenous child attempts to devour its mother’s breast.

The tree of temperance, showing benefits caused by healthy living

Published by Currier & Ives 1872
Lithographic print with watercolour
Wellcome Collection, 97i

The temperance movement promoted milk as an alternative to alcohol. It believed a balanced diet could prevent excessive or ‘immoral’ behaviour. The trunk of the tree in this print contains the words “HEALTH, Strength of Body”, suggesting that physical health supports moral habits including “Prayer”, “Honesty” and “Good Sense”. The conflation of good health with good character led reformers to use food as a way to ‘improve’ society.


Luke Turner 2017
Digital video, colour, sound 3 minutes 15 seconds
The artist

Starting the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as US President, Turner invited the public to respond to the words “He Will Not Divide Us” via a live-streaming camera. In this footage, North American neo-Nazis drink milk while chanting antisemitic and racist slogans. They draw on a racist association between consuming dairy products and the ‘success’ of the white race, connecting strength, masculinity and ‘purity’ with milk-drinking. This film contains racist and antisemitic language.

How To Make A Proper Cup Of Tea

Hetain Patel 2018
Digital video, colour, sound
4 minutes 14 seconds
The artist

Patel explores ideas of displacement, prejudice and dual heritage through the process of making a cup of tea. Using the familiar format of a YouTube cooking show, Patel and his co-host add white ingredients – milk and sugar – into the brown tea in order to ‘improve’ it. Tea has been appropriated as a symbol of Britishness in ways that hide both its origins in China and the extractive colonial policies that enabled tea drinking to become widespread in Britain.

Good Grazing

Brosky (designer)
Around 1945-49 Poster
IWM (Imperial War Museums), Art. IWM PST 15407

British colonial authorities issued this poster to farmers in East Africa. It promotes British farming practices as the key to successful grazing. Colonial authorities dismissed indigenous dairying techniques as ‘unclean’ and unprofitable. They used agricultural reform to impose white British values and systems and to justify the taking and enclosing of land traditionally used by pastoral communities to graze their cattle. They ignored existing knowledge about the role cattle play in maintaining local ecosystems through grazing.

Children’s igir kwas (football) ball made from plastic milk bags

Abush (age 12) and Zari (age 11)
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 2000.23.3

This football is made from plastic milk bags from Mama Dairy (Sebeta Agro-Industry) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The cows on the packaging are Holstein- Friesians. European cattle breeders who prized their ability to produce large amounts of milk introduced them to many African countries in the colonial era. Today, they are the most widespread cattle breed in the world. Their frequent appearance in global dairy marketing demonstrates how the most visible narrative of milk is a European one.

Aleput (Milk container)

Unidentified Kalenjin maker Around 1970s
Wood, leather
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1978.20.17

Mukö po monung or Kaptambo (Infant’s milk gourd)

Unidentified Kalenjin maker Around 1970s
Gourd, leather, beads, string, plant fibre
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1978.20.257

Kipsutei (Stick for applying charcoal inside gourd)

Unidentified Kalenjin maker Around 1970s
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1978.20.390

Mursik is a thick, sour milk drink that is popular across Kenya and traditionally associated with pastoral Kalenjin communities. Milk is boiled and transferred to a charcoal-lined gourd. The milk ferments and can be stored for up to a month. The charcoal is antimicrobial and gives the milk a greyish colour as well as a distinctive taste. Making mursik is a mobile, low-cost and sustainable alternative to pasteurisation. Global dairy regulators have historically misunderstood and under-valued these technologies.


Danielle Dean 2023
Animation, 8 minutes 28 seconds
The artist, 47 Canal, and Commonwealth and Council.
Animation by Marjolaine Lebrasseur. Hand-drawn bird animation by Justin Weber. Soundscape and composition by Taul Katz, Interlude Sounds.
The artist is grateful for the generous consultation and expertise offered by the Ngāruahine Iwi who are one of eight Iwi (Māori tribes) in the Taranaki region.
Commissioned by Wellcome Collection

The starting point for White is a 1930s collectible card shown nearby depicting dairy farming on the plains surrounding Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. British colonial settlers brought dairy farming to this area in the early 19th century. Today, the Taranaki region is a centre for dairy science. Dean’s animation leads us through the indigenous plants of the Taranaki forest. This ecosystem was threatened by intensive forest clearing to create pastures for dairy cattle. White examines how colonisers disregarded and attempted to erase indigenous and local Māori knowledge crucial to the healthy maintenance of the land and the food and medicinal systems it supported.

Important Industries of the British Empire. New Zealand: Dairy Farming

Typhoo Tea 1938-39
Collectible card
Courtesy of Danielle Dean

The cost of milk

Today artists, writers and performers are exploring the ethics and economies of milk.

Online communities and DIY publications such as zines reflect on milk as a means of resistance. They confront the environmental impact of consumer lifestyle choices, subvert milk’s colonial legacies and advocate for community control over the way food is produced and traded.

How dairy farmers are adapting to a changing world is explored by filmmaker Leo Hallam Dawson. He illustrates the pressure they face to produce more food, more efficiently and more sustainably, while maintaining financial stability.

Artist Melanie Jackson and writer Esther Leslie draw on the ways milk circulates through our economy and our imaginations. Reflecting on milk as one of the most technologised fluids in the world, they examine how it is becoming part of the digital age in ever more complex ways.

Performance artist Jess Dobkin looks at the commodification, fetishisation and distribution of human milk. She invites us to have a conversation about value and labour and to imagine alternative currencies of kindness, love and community.

Milk Report

Conway and Young 2019
The artists

‘Milk Report’ records the 720 hours and seven minutes Young spent breastfeeding her child in the six months after giving birth. When she sells all 720 copies, Young will have earnt £5,911. This equates to earning the 2019 National Living Wage of £8.21 per hour for the work undertaken. An accompanying text explores the economics of childcare and feeding, and the invisibility of reproductive labour.

Intifada Milk

Arwa Aburawa and Sofia Niazi 2015
Risoprint zine
The artists

In 1987, the Palestinian community of Beit Sahour in the West Bank bought 18 cows. As an act of resistance to the occupying Israeli state, they started a cooperative dairy farm rather than rely on milk from Israeli dairies. The intifada (uprising) milk signalled the community’s self-sufficiency and desire for independence. Today, the global food sovereignty movement campaigns for a food system in which communities rather than governments and corporations have control over producing, trading and consuming food.

EZ ZINE-1: DIY Oat Milk

Eve Bull 2021
Risograph zine
The artist

This zine contains instructions for making oat milk at home. It looks at the environmental impact of lifestyle choices and highlights the difficulties of ethical consumption within a capitalist system. The artist highlights how the higher price of commercially produced plant milk risks framing environmentalism as something only for the wealthy. Zines are self-published booklets typically produced in small batches. As they do not need a publishing house to approve them, they can surface and circulate information outside of mainstream media channels.

Letter to the Prime Minister

Written and recorded by participants in the Changing Realities project.
Writer Laura Lindlow.
Sound artist Ros Fraser
October 2022
Audio, 2 minutes 19 seconds
Changing Realities is a collaboration between parents and carers on a low income, researchers at the University of York and Child Poverty Action Group. Funded by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust

The price of milk has risen sharply in the last year, alongside other food essentials. Food bank use is at an all-time high. Black British and South Asian communities are over twice as likely to live in poverty as white communities. The Changing Realities project documents life on a low income and pushes for change, highlighting and correcting the absence of those experiencing poverty in policy- making discussions.

Homemade calf muzzle

Unidentified maker (British) 19th century
Metal, leather
The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, 68/438

For cows to produce milk, they need to give birth to a calf. Dairy calves are weaned early from their mothers to prevent them from taking her milk, saving it for human consumption. Historically, farmers used homemade muzzles. Today, most farms physically separate the calf and mother. Some dairies keep the calf with its mother until it is old enough to wean naturally. Known as ‘calf at foot’, this reduces the milk available to be sold by around 20%, meaning consumers would need to be willing to pay a higher price for milk produced this way.


Leo Hallam Dawson 2023
3 screen digital video, colour, sound 20 minutes
The artist.
Commissioned by Wellcome Collection.
Sound design by Tom Parker, OPM London.
Colour grading by Fraser Twitchett, OkayStudio

Over the last 25 years, the UK dairy industry has changed significantly. The number of dairy farms has decreased from 35,700 to just under 8,000. Milk production has risen but there has been a 28% reduction in the number of dairy cows. This film offers an insight into three dairy farms operating in the South-West of England today. The farmers reflect on dairy farming’s role in creating sustainable food systems and the growing disconnect between how food is produced and consumer knowledge.

Left screen: Cooperatively-owned Community Supported Agriculture scheme, Gloucestershire
Acres farmed: 100 (rented)
Cows milked: 15
Calves separated: after 6 weeks, nursing daily with mother until 3 months old
Pasture and housing: cows in the field all year round
Average yield per cow: 2,700 litres/year
Average output per day: 150 litres
Sales model: direct sales, on subscription
Products: liquid milk (raw) – £2.75/litre; yoghurt – £4.75/750ml; kefir – £3.30/300ml


Middle Screen: Family-owned farm, Wiltshire
Acres farmed: 600 (100 owned, 500 rented)
Cows milked: 180
Calves separated: after 2 days Pasture and housing: cows indoors from November to March
Average yield per cow: 7,500 litres/year
Average output per day: 6,000 litres
Sales model: selling to a milk Co-operative
Products: liquid milk – 49p/litre

Right Screen: Family-owned farm, Dorset Acres farmed: 3,100 (800 owned, 2,300 rented)
Cows milked: 1,800
Calves separated: after 2 hours
Pasture and housing: cows indoors all year round
Average yield per cow: 11,250 litres/year
Average output per day: 55,000 litres
Sales model: selling to a milk Co-operative
Products: liquid milk – 47p/litre

Mother’s Milk Project

Noelle Fries 2022
The artist

Sherrill Elizabeth Tekatsitsiakwa “Katsi” Cook is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Tribe and a Kanienkehaka midwife. She initiated the Akwesasne Mother’s Milk Project in 1981 to monitor and document levels of industrial pollutants in the breast milk of Mohawk mothers living near the St. Lawrence River in North America or Kaniatarowan’neh (“Big River”) as it is known in Mohawk. This initial project grew into a decade-long community-based participatory research project. Corporations disproportionately dispose of hazardous waste in racially minoritised communities, constituting a form of environmental racism.

Milk Tea Alliance flag


The Milk Tea Alliance (MTA) is an online human rights movement. It began in 2020 as a response to Chinese nationalism by an online community of people in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The colours of the flag represent the different milk teas found in these regions. The use of milk is a legacy of British colonialism (in Hong Kong) or trade connections (in Thailand and Taiwan). The MTA uses these milk tea drinks to differentiate their regions from China, where people primarily drink tea without milk. In 2021 Twitter launched a new emoji for the Milk Tea Alliance, a white cup set against the three shades of the flag.

Deeper in the Pyramid; Share of Throat

Melanie Jackson
Publication co-authored with Esther Leslie Scent designed by Ezra-Lloyd Jackson 2023 version
The artist.
Installation with felt, steel, ceramic sculpture, animations, book and scent
Deeper in the Pyramid was originally commissioned in 2018 by Grand Union, Birmingham and the publication co-published with Grand Union, Birmingham, Primary, Nottingham and Banner Repeater, London in 2018.
Flooring Sponsored by Kingspan Data & Flooring
This installation contains sound and scent.

This installation is part of a long-standing body of collaborative work interrogating milk’s networks of exploitation and care. Human and non-human milk’s multiple technological forms as liquid, solid, powder and foam are expressed through different media. These include the liquid crystal of the screen, digital animation, ceramic clay, language and lactones, which create the aroma of dairy products such as cream or milk powders. The ceramic sculptures draw on milk’s molecular formations, its poured, moulded and bodily forms, and the vessels that have contained it across time and place. The book invites us to create our own journey of exploration through this spiralling and far-reaching substance.

For What It’s Worth

Jess Dobkin 2023
The artist. Commissioned by Wellcome Collection
This installation contains sound, light and activations.

In this installation, artist Jess Dobkin asks us to consider the regulation, politics and ethics of human milk in the 21st century. While it has been distributed through hospital milk banks for some time, sales of human milk have recently proliferated online. Alongside new parents, consumers include bodybuilders, alternative health enthusiasts, fetishists and others. Excerpts from conversations with Dobkin and her research collaborators are heard throughout the installation, where they share perspectives and exchange knowledge. We encounter objects and materials conjured through Dobkin’s creative process as we are invited into an unruly archive of milk, labour and value.

Producer: Clayton Lee
Design Collaborator: Dany Lyne
Sound Designer: Dan Dobson
Design Consultant: Sherri Hay
Graphic Designer: Lisa Kiss Design
Nipple Tassel Designer: Alex Tigchelaar as Sasha Van Bon Bon
Creative Research Group: Hurmat Ain, Angelina Campigotto, Jess Dobkin, Taja Lindley, Charity Mwebaze, melissandre varin
Interviewees: Naisargi N Davé, Carolyn Prouse
Additional Assistance: Hurmat Ain, Angelina Campigotto, Sky Dobkin
Special Thanks: Hemispheric Encounters and Moe Angelos, Emelie Chhangur, Jesse Garrison, Josh Greenhut, Trey Gilmore, Laura Levin, Susan Rich


Curators: Marianne Templeton, Honor Beddard

Exhibition Project Melanie Appleby, Managers: Georgia Monk

Registrars: Emma Smith, Rowan De Saulles

Production Manager: Christian Kingham

Exhibition Technicians: Lawrence Corby, Alex Drew,

Suzy Lickley, Joe Richards, Lucy Woodhouse

Audio Visual: Ricardo Barbosa, Jeremy Bryans, Elleesha Hannan, Ollie Isaac, Joshua McCrow, Antonina Stulova

Conservator: Kath Knowles, Sarah Bird

3D Design: West Port Architects

2D Design: Lesley Curtis, Marina Da Silva, Petra Essing, Gale Foster, Richard Kindell, Bret Syfert

Lighting Design: Beam Lighting Design Activation Design: Chris MacInnes,

Charles Stanton-Jones


Digital Guide: Nelly Ekström, VocalEyes,

Luke Gould, Remark!, Wellcome Collection Digital Engagement Department

Editor: Minnie Scott

Construction: Sam Forster Associates

Production: Omni Colour

Special thanks to exhibition consultants: Sam Allen, Robert Craig, Andrea Freeman, Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp.

We would like to thank all the artists, lenders, contributors and colleagues who have generously lent their works, expertise and ideas to the exhibition, and who have contributed to its planning and delivery. We also acknowledge the help and support of the following individuals:

Elinor Adaev, Santiago Alfaro Rotondo, Edmée Ballif, Jo Bannon, Argelia Bravo, Lilli Chambers, Alejandro Colas, Nathan Clay, Ollie Douglas, Jason Edwards, Fernando García-Dory, Fozia Ismail, James Lamburn, Tim Lang, Anna Leader, Anna Sulan Masing, Modi Mwatsama, Yoriko Otomo, Maddy Power, Chris Reynolds, Austin Russell, Eloise Russell, Orla Shortall, Natalie Shenker, Adam Stead, Adam Sutherland, Salma Tuqan, Lucy Yates, Kayla Yurco, Sami Zubaida.

The term ‘Scientific Motherhood’ was coined in the 1980s by US historian Rima D. Apple.

Where no credit line is shown on object labels, items have been purchased as material for the exhibition.

We are committed to respecting the copyright for works on display, but if you have reason to believe any content infringes yours or someone else’s rights please contact a member of staff.

Wellcome Collection acknowledge the support of Smile Plastics.