Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Wellcome' To The World's Filthiest Library Exhibit

By Nancy Mattoon

Poster For The Wellcome Collection's Filthy New Show.
(All Images Courtesy of The Wellcome Library.)

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

London's Wellcome Collection and Library, home to one of the world's greatest collections for the study of the history and progress of medicine, is dishing the dirt in a new exhibit. The Wellcome's curators have dug into a mound of over 2 million items, from an ancient Egyptian prescription to the papers of scientist Francis Crick, to create a show which "will reveal the fascinating world of filth that remains one of the very last taboos."

Illustration From: Sir William Watson Cheyne's
Antiseptic surgery: its principles, practice, history and results.
London: Smith Elder, 1882.

The exhibition, entitled Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, consists of over 200 artifacts including rare books, cultural ephemera, scientific documents and instruments, and archival photographs and films, brought together to uncover "a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past." Inspired by anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas's observation that dirt is "matter out of place," the show is organized around six cities, in six different periods of history, and six different countries, to show the ever-changing attitudes of mankind towards filth and cleanliness. It begins in the South Holland city of Delft in 1683, and ends with a look to the future: the city of New York in 2030.

Author Portrait and Illustration From:
Arcana naturæ detecta / ab Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
Delphis Batavorum : Apud Henricum a Krooneveld , 1695.

The three earliest cities chosen for the show provide the most documentation based on rare books and ephemera. The first highlights the obsessively clean culture of the homemakers of Delft, circa 1683. Here we see paintings and engravings of "housewives and their maidservants maintaining a strict regime of sweeping, scouring and polishing interiors that already appear spotless." Also included are some of the earliest sketches of bacteria, as found in the drawings of scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, often called "the father of microbiology," who stumbled upon the existence of microscopic organisms after developing a magnifying lens to examine the quality of cloth.

E.H. Dixon's 1837 Watercolor Of London's Great Dust Heap.

Next, we are taken to a street in Victorian London. Included is an 1837 watercolor of what was known as "The Great Dust Heap At Kings Cross." This enormous, black mountain of refuse blotted out the sky above Euston Road with cinders and ash. Mixed with the remnants of burnt coal and wood were rotting vegetables and meat, whole animal carcasses, rags, metal, glass, and the occasional dismembered human body part or entire corpse. The dust heap is an important location in Charles Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and was also the subject of a scathing 1850 article by R.H. Horne entitled "Dust or Ugliness Redeemed," and printed in the magazine published by Dickens, Household Words.

William Alfred Delamotte's 1847
Watercolor Of A Case Of Hospital Gangrene.

The final of the three cities in the exhibition well documented by the Wellcome Library is Glasgow, Scotland in the second half of the 19th century. Here, the focus is on the hospital, and early efforts at creating a sterile environment for surgery and recovery. The works of Joseph Lister and Sir William Watson Cheyne illustrate the attempt to overcome the filthy environment which resulted in an astounding 90 per cent chance of amputation due to infection among Glasgow Hospital patients treated for broken limbs or compound fractures, circa 1867. Lister discovered that carbolic acid was being used to mask the stench of the sewers of nearby Carlisle, and decided to apply the same principle in the operating room, spraying surfaces with the corrosive to eradicate bacteria. Cheyne documented this and other new methods of hospital hygiene in his book, Antiseptic surgery: its principles, practice, history and results. (1882)

One of the Earliest Depictions Of Bacteria.
Arcana naturæ detecta / ab Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
Delphis Batavorum : Apud Henricum a Krooneveld , 1695.

A companion book to the exhibition, also entitled Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life (2011), has been published by Profile Books. It is filled with illustrations from the Wellcome Library and Archives, and features several new essays as well as "a short graphic novel section on the significance and implications of dirt from the microbial level through to the environmental." Ken Arnold, director of public programs at the Wellcome Collection summed up the idea behind the book and the exhibit, "Dirt is everywhere and periodically we get very worried about it. But we have also discovered that we need bits of it and guiltily, secretly, we are sometimes drawn to it." The makes perfect sense, since as the burial service in the Book Of Common Prayer (1662) reminds us, we will all eventually be reduced to that from which we came: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."


1 comment:

  1. Good job, Nancy! Talk about geting down and well, you know! My guess is that societies have always wanted to sweep this topic under the proverbial carpet. I'll stop now. Sybil


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