Imagine living anywhere near this gray mountain of trash in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign. It's the "Great Dust-Heap at Kings Cross" as seen from Maiden Lane (now York Road), painted in 1837 by the watercolorist E. H. Dixon, surrounded by slum housing and adjacent to the Smallpox Hospital.
The crud all around us is the focus of a fascinating new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London. "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," brings together a variety of art, documents, cultural ephemera, photos, videos, and art installations to -- as curator Kate Forde puts it -- "uncover a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past."
The exhibition uses six different historical times and places as starting points for exploring attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness: a home in seventeenth-century Delft, a street in Victorian London in the 1850s, a hospital in Glasgow in the 1860s, a museum in interwar Dresden, a community in present-day New Delhi, and the Fresh Kills landfill site in New York City.
Highlights include paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Joseph Lister's medical instruments, and a wide range of contemporary art on related themes. You can peer through one of the first primitive microscopes used to discover bacteria (which had been collected from the mouth of a Dutch scientist), learn about the cesspools that turned the Thames into a "monster soup" in the early nineteenth century, and gaze on "Laid to Rest," a sculpture by Serena Korda featuring bricks that incorporate dust sent to her by modern Londoners.
The exhibition's display on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in London's Soho district, ground zero of a cholera epidemic in 1854 that killed more than 600 people, is particularly interesting. At the time, an infecting "miasma" was thought to cause the disease. It took the brilliant detective work of the physician (and royal anaesthetist) John Snow (DNB bio here; Wiki bio here) and the Rev. Henry Whitehead (Wiki bio here) to find the true culprit: fetid water that was being distributed through a public water pump. Snow's famous "ghost map," which traced the progress of the terrifying disease through the city, is included in the exhibition.
As for Kings Cross ... similar dustheaps featured in Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (the "Golden Dustman" Noddy Bofﬁn is one of the writer's most indelible creations) and were the subject of "Dust, or Ugliness Redeemed," an essay by the poet R. H. Horne that appeared in Household Words, the weekly journal Dickens edited from 1850 to 1859. Horne vividly describes the underclass of "Searchers and Sorters" who scaled the debris and painstakingly raked through the refuse, separating animal and vegetable matter from broken pottery, bones, rags, metal, glass, and other detritus. Everything was sold off and recycled: coarse cinders were sold to brickmakers, bones to soapmakers, threadbare linen rags to papermakers. [Shown here: The sifting process at a dust-yard in nineteenth-century London; Mayhew, 1862.]
The Kings Cross dustheap pictured at the top of this post was packed up and shipped to Russia in 1848 when city developers decided to convert the site into what is now the Kings Cross railway terminus. The Russians mixed ash from the pile with local clay to make bricks that were used to rebuild their war-ravaged country.
This exhibition is part of the Wellcome's "Dirt Season" that involves a collaboration with the BBC (a series called "Filthy Cities" with accompanying scratch-and-sniff cards), an environmental theatre piece at this summer's Glastonbury Festval, related events for children at the Eden Project in Cornwall, a "Dirt Banquet" held earlier this month at Joseph Bazalgette's Crossness Pumping Station, and a free iPhone/iPad word-puzzle app called "Filth Fair."
"Dirt" runs through 31 August at the Wellcome Collection, 215 Euston Road, London.
"Wellcome Collection Takes a Filthy Look at an Age-Old Obsession," The Guardian, 23 March 2011.
Henry Mayhew, "Of the Dustmen of London." London Labour and the London Poor, 1851.
Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780–1870. Manchester University Press, 2007.
H. P. Sucksmith, "The dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend," Essays in Criticism
(1973), pp. 206–212.
Costas A. Velis, David C. Wilson, and Christopher R. Cheeseman, "19th century London dust-yards: A case study in closed-loop resource efficiency." Waste Management 29.4 (April 2009), pp. 1282-1290.
Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Riverhead Press, 2006. There's a wonderful website for this book here.