Milk

Milk
30 March – 10 September 2023
Press preview: 29 March 2023, 09:30 – 12:30

wellcomecollection.org | #Milk

In March 2023, Wellcome Collection, London, UK, will present ‘Milk’, a major exhibition dedicated to exploring our relationship with milk and its place in global politics, society and culture. Featuring over 100 items including historical objects, artworks and new commissions, this will be the first museum survey to consider the complexity of this seemingly everyday substance and how it has come to be seen as so central to our perceptions of nutrition and ‘good health.’ It will also consider the consequences of the introduction of scientific reforms into farming and motherhood that prioritised standarisation and regulation, and it will ask what the future of milk might look like.

The exhibition will include contemporary objects and artworks by Julia Bornefeld, Sarah Pucill, Hetain Patel, and Lucy + Jorge Orta, amongst others, as well as new commissions by Danielle Dean, Jess Dobkin, and Ilana Harris-Babou.  It also features a 2023 iteration of ‘Deeper in the Pyramid’, Melanie Jackson and Esther Leslie’s major project exploring milk’s seepage into every aspect of our daily lives.

Historical materials will include a terracotta model of a mule carrying cheese from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE; a 19th century feeding bottle and a large selection of novelty cow creamers from the same era; 20th century advice booklets for mothers; milk-related ephemera and marketing from the 1930s to today, including government nutritional campaigns and commercial advertising from the dairy industry. Artworks include Evelyn Mary Dunbar’s oil painting ‘Milking Practice with Artificial Udders’ (1940).

The exhibition will examine how milk came to be considered a staple of diets in the United Kingdom. Advertising from the 1920s to present day will show how ideas of purity and safety are central to milk’s commercial identity, while a late 19th century print from the temperance movement shows how milk has been drawn into campaigns of social reform.

Lucy + Jorge Orta’s ‘Milk’, a series of 16 cast and lacquered aluminium milk containers, will show how people around the world encounter milk as part of their everyday life. Also included is a selection of colourful printed milk bottle tops from the 1940s, which show how companies conveyed their brand and messaging with almost religious zeal. Express Dairy’s glossy promotional film ‘The Daily Round’ shows how dairies sought consumer trust by emphasising the scientific rigour of their laboratories; and Marcel Broodthaers ‘The Farm Animals’ (1974) hints at the ways in which cows have been industrialised for optimum efficiency.

From early 20th century formula milk sample tins supplied to doctors by companies such as Glaxo, to the first dietary guidelines produced by the British Medical Association with illustrated daily menus, this exhibition will examine how milk has been used to exert power as well as to provide care. It will show how milk drinking was constructed as a modern practice, and why it is now seen as essential to a healthy diet.

‘Milk’ will explore personal experiences of nursing and infant feeding, including Ilana Harris-Babou’s video installation, ‘Let Down Reflex’, which uses first-hand testimonies from her mother and sister’s experiences of breastfeeding to consider the complexity and intimacy of black motherhood. Julia Bornefeld’s large-scale hanging sculpture reimagines the maternal body to reflect on the fraught relationship between care and milk extraction. As human milk becomes commercially available, a new commission by Jess Dobkin will explore how we negotiate the regulation, politics and ethics of its sale.

Milk has been used as a tool of empire and nationalism due to its long-standing associations with purity and whiteness. Powerful marketing campaigns used images of white, nuclear families as the face of milk, while the abhorrent theories of well-known eugenicists such as Herbert Hoover, sought to make connections between the purity of ‘natural’ milk and ideas of social purity.  Newly commissioned for this exhibition is Danielle Dean’s ‘White’, an animation reflecting on dairy farming as a colonising force that has reshaped indigenous landscapes in New Zealand.

Government pamphlets and propaganda from the 1910s to the early 2000s will showcase how milk has played a central role in people’s diets and in national welfare and food programmes.  One such example is Ronald Reagan’s ‘Government Cheese’ assistance programme, created following the US government’s purchase of surplus dairy supplies, in which five-pound blocks of processed cheese were distributed to welfare beneficiaries. It became a marker of poverty and class, but also an infamous popular culture icon. Leo Hallam Dawson’s documentary ‘DAIRY’ will explore the relationship between contemporary farming, food, government and sustainability, while inviting visitors to reflect on the values on which our food systems are based.

‘Milk’ is curated by Marianne Templeton and Honor Beddard, it opens to the public on the 30 March until 10 September 2023 and it is free to visit. It will be accompanied by a programme of events and online Stories.

For press information and interview requests please contact

Juan SanchezMedia Lead, Wellcome Collection+ 4 4. 0 2 0. 7 6 1 1. 9 9 2 0

Notes to editors

Events programme

Just add Milk!

Date to be announced

Milk popularized tea, coffee and chocolate, transforming these colonial commodities into three of the most widely consumed products in the world. Join this panel discussion to examine how the addition of milk changed the ways Britain consumed tea, coffee and chocolate and the common themes of empire entangled in their histories.

Camel Milk Cultures with Dhaqan Collective
Sat 29 July 2023

Join this immersive event to learn about the hugely important role of camels and their milk in Indigenous Somali culture. Learn about its use in health and healing through a new soundscape with the dhaqan collective, a Somali feminist art collective based in Bristol.

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About Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection is a free museum exploring health and human experience. Its mission is to challenge how we all think and feel about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art. It offers a changing programme of curated exhibitions, museum and library collections, public events, in addition to a café. Wellcome Collection publishes books on what it means to be human, and collaborates widely to reach broad and diverse audiences, locally and globally.

Wellcome Collection actively develops and preserves collections for current and future audiences and, where possible, offers new narratives about health and the human condition. Wellcome Collection works to engage underrepresented audiences, including D/deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, and racially minoritised communities.

Wellcome Collection is part of Wellcome, which supports science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. We support discovery research into life, health and wellbeing, and we’re taking on three worldwide health challenges: mental health, infectious disease, and climate and health.

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#Milk