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Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life

Thursday 24 March 2011 - Wednesday 31 August 2011

Watch this video on YouTube

'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 galleries

    Explore the exhibition's six different locations and their relationship to dirt at specific points in time.

  • Events


    Events, discussions, activities and walking tours to accompany the 'Dirt' exhibition.

  • Exhibition films

    Exhibition films

    The exhibition features various films exploring dirt-related themes.

  • Quiz


    Do you know your muck from your microbes? Your grime from your germs? Test your knowledge of dirt with our quiz.

  • Wellcome's Dirtbusters

    Wellcome's Dirtbusters

    The cleaning team at the Wellcome Trust and Collection are a vital part of our enterprise. The buildings are vast, have high numbers of visitors, specialist requirements (and even a ghost, apparently!), so keeping them dirt free is quite an undertaking. This film follows Ashley and Alejandro around the galleries while they clean up the weekend’s mess.

  • Filthy Flickr pool

    Filthy Flickr pool

    Add your filthy images to our Flickr pool.

  • The book

    The book

    This provocative book features specially commissioned essays and a short graphic novel section on the significance and implications of dirt from the microbial level through to the environmental.

  • Dirt Season

    Dirt Season

    Obsessively avoided and often misunderstood, dirt - and our complex relationship with it - is the subject of a season of activity from the Wellcome Trust, running from March to September.

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