Dirt, hygiene and filth at Wellcome Collection

Monster Soup

Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life, at the Wellcome Collection, opens with a warning. ‘This exhibition contains human remains,’ it says. It does. It also contains two of the most chilling exhibits I have seen.

It begins reassuringly, tamely, with some homely images. First up is what looks like a grimy sash window, dull with dust. The temptation to run your finger down the pane and clear the glass is strong. But this is a cast of a window, made out of grime itself, dirty all the way through.

It’s unsettling. But rounding the first corner, we’re transported to the charming, serene, orderly, blue-and-white world of Delft in 1683, where the tidy grid of streets is tiled in washable ceramics, and the paintings all testify to an obsession with sweeping away dirt. I found myself relaxing, half-wishing to recede into this world of gleaming cooking pots, sparkling windows and snowy linen. Not to mention the diligent servants, demonstrating their godliness with obedient industry.

I should know better. Another corner, and the microscope revealed what lurked in the sparkling water gushing from the pumps. As people of the time were horrified to discover, the water contained microbes, tiny animules, bugs and mini-monsters. Monster soup, as the William Health engraving (pictured) has it.

The Thames monster soup fed a terrifying epidemic in 19th century London. The physician John Snow is a hero to anyone interested in public health or epidemiology, or just in the applications of stats and mapping to solve medical mysteries. I pored over his 1854 Cholera Map, showing how the deaths from this horrible disease centred on Broad Street, Soho, and the famous Broad Street pump.

There were some startling exhibits in this section. The ‘epidemic ambulance’, a black-clad box that was clearly more of a coffin than an ambulance. An innoculous-looking glass phial of white liquid, which proved on closer inspection to be a sample of ‘rice water’ excrement from 1853. Cholera causes such a violent, dehydrating purging of the body that water pours from the bowels, cloudy white like water that’s had rice cooked in it. I don’t know how long cholera bacteria live, but I backed away from that little vial.

Gradually, the weapons of modern science against these diseases of squalor became familiar. Sewerage systems, like the plans for Bazalgette’s Victorian triumph, are on display. There are maps, graphs, statistics and reports, from Chadwick and Mayhew, on poverty, sanitary conditions and mortality figures. By contrast was the array of Londoners who made their living from dirt – mudlarks, rubbish carters, scavengers, bone-grubbers and the strong-stomached night men.

Joseph Lister’s discovery of the importance of sterile conditions was demonstrated with a mock-up of a ward from his Glasgow Hospital, and some hair-raising drawings of ‘hospital gangrene’ caused by the use of unclean instruments. Gradually, you felt, things were looking up.

By the time you move into the section on the 1930 International Hygiene Exhibition, held in Dresden in 1930, you start to relax into a modern world of soap, toothpaste, healthy diet and rational dress, where the causes of disease were addressed by the wonders of modern science. A poster urging precautions against TB celebrated the virtues of Light And Air In the Home! Across the aisle, photos and plans show Britain’s modern wonders, the Finsbury Park Health Centre and the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre, with its swimming pool and showers. Who could possibly object?

At which point, the true filth in this exhibition reaches out and slaps you around the face. It was, apparently, a short step from bodily hygiene to racial hygiene and the perverted doctrine of the eugenicists. Posters no longer advertised toothpaste, but the need for ‘cleansing of the nation’s ethnic body’. Hideous caricatures accuse Jews of spreading TB. The diagrams, statistics and graphs of the 19th century are put to more sinister use, promoting the foul propaganda of the Nazi party, of which the Dresden Hygiene Museum was soon a willing proponent.

Two exhibits in particular were hard to view, never mind comprehend. One was a children’s book, promoting hatred of Jews through grotesque drawings and links to disease. The other was a graph showing the numbers of ‘disinfections’ – murders – carried out at four gas chambers in 1941. They didn’t just do this dreadful thing; they calmly measured and recorded it.

I’ve been twice to this exhibition. It’s all good, and the sections on Delhi, Kolkata and the Fresh Kills landfill site at New York are also interesting. But I’ve never been able to focus on anything else, past that evil little graph. There are human remains in Dirt, yes. There’s a vial of choleric excrement, and exhibits made out of human shit. But there’s nothing as filthy as that graph that purports to demonstrate disinfection.

Dirt is at the Wellcome Collection until 31 August. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

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