Wellcome Collection takes a filthy look at an age-old obsession

Baked excrement and elegant Dutch chamber pot among attractions at first exhibition devoted to the battle against dirt

The normally august Wellcome Collection is wallowing in filth, in the first exhibition devoted to dirt and humankind's desperate attempts to control its remorseless accumulation.

Exhibits include an elegant Dutch chamber pot, the coffin-like ambulance used to carry away victims of the cholera ravaging London's foetid slums 150 years ago, and five giant grey slabs made by the artist Santiago Sierra from pounded and baked human excrement, created with the help of Dalits who clear India's reeking open sewers by hand.

"We've taken as our theme the observation by the anthropologist Mary Douglas that dirt is just 'matter out of place' – and looked at six places where dirt has been perceived as a major issue," curator Kate Forde said. "But dirt has also been a source of opportunity and creativity: millions of people have earned their livings from dirt throughout history."

Events include a talk by one man who does just that: Tony Dobbs, a street sweeper in Kentish Town, London. Propped casually against a wall is a broom he will never use: a perfectly ordinary wooden brush, inlaid by the artist Susan Collis with streaks and smears of grime made of black and white diamonds, opals and turquoise.

"Budget Day is perhaps an opportune time to remember that we are all dust," Ken Arnold, head of exhibitions, said.

As the Wellcome's visitor numbers will undoubtedly prove, people have long been both revolted and fascinated by dirt. In 1911 an exhibition on hygiene in Dresden drew five million visitors in six months, and eventually led to the creation of a museum of hygiene in 1930, backed by a mouthwash millionaire. Soon ,as the posters demonstrate, it had a much more sinister mission, adopted by the Nazis to expose not just dirt but racial impurity.

Other exhibits include a small 19th-century glass vial, borrowed from a museum in Denmark, which still contains the dreaded "rice water": human excretions when the body was so exhausted by cholera that only cloudy liquid remained.

It hangs by a 19th-century double portrait of an Italian woman, a young beauty in the first, literally green in the face and blue lipped in the second. The artist has noted that the second picture was drawn an hour after she first displayed the symptoms of cholera, and four hours before she died.

The exhibition begins with the obsessive scrubbing and polishing of Dutch women in the 17th century, a source of wonder to tourists immortalised in beautiful paintings by Pieter de Hooch, and the revelation by the Delft scientist Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek that their work was all in vain, because when he looked through his home-made microscopes at something as innocuous as a drop of clear water, he saw that it was teeming with microbes.

One of the most poignant objects is a small Dutch-made white dish, made almost 400 years ago, and excavated from a London sewer: in neat blue letters it has the date 1661 and the inscription "You and I are earth". "It's made of clay itself of course, the perfect object – a metaphor for the whole exhibition," Forde said.

Dirt, the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, free at the Wellcome Collection until 31 August.

• This article was amended on 24 March 2011. The original referred to the artist Mary Collis. This has been corrected.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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