London’s Dirty Secrets

Cleanliness may be next to godliness but it can also be very boring as all little children know. Filth is much more fascinating; which is why the current (until the end of August 2011) ‘DIRT’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is such an alluring show. Andrea Kirkby tells us about her recent visit to the exhibition.

Credit Wellcome Library

The exhibition looks at our changing concepts of what dirt actually is and how we treat it, through six rooms each located in a different place and time – 17th-century Delft, 19th-century Soho, the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island and several others. One of the most interesting exhibits looks at the work of Dalit scavengers who clean the rubbish (and the latrines) of Delhi and Kolkata.

It also looks at van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microbes (which he called ‘animalculae’) through his invention of the microscope – suddenly dirt came alive! It was no longer just inert nastiness but full of wriggling life.

The cholera outbreaks of Victorian London are examined – as is the German hygiene movement of the early 20th century with its assertion of rational, scientific cleanliness.

Dirt isn’t just a matter of grubbiness or germs – our attitudes to dirt illustrate a whole range of social, ethical and even sexual attitudes (for instance, why are there so many pissoirs and so few ladies’ toilets in southern Europe?).

Credit Wellcome Library

Films illustrate various aspects of dirt and cleanliness, from the utopian hygiene of the Peckham Health Centre to the trials of someone trying to find a public toilet in Mumbai (punningly entitled ‘Q2P’).

Inspired by the exhibition, I wanted to find some more glorious dirt in London – and discovered that there’s a great deal of good dirty fun to be had.

  • The bust of Sir Joseph Bazalgette on the Victoria Embankment shows the inventor of London’s modern sewerage system. Look down the Embankment and you are seeing his masterpiece; the road above conceals the sewer below.
  • London Dungeon has a sewer ride.
  • Crossness Pumping Station is currently in restoration and should reopen in 2012. It’s a fascinating neo-Romanesque cast-iron building, colourfully painted and still contains its four original pumping engines.
  • Kew Bridge Steam Museum features engines that were used to pump water, not sewage – but the museum exhibits also feature the sewer system.
  • The Museum of London still has a pair of “patten” shoes on display from the 17th century in its Medieval Gallery (alongside a selection of other medieval shoes such as Poulaines). These wooden mini-stilts or platforms were strapped on over your shoes, lifting your feet above the manure, ash, sewage and detritus strewn in the street and keeping your footwear reasonably clean. However dirty London’s streets are today, they get nowhere near the level of filthiness they achieved in the early modern period!

Credit Museum of London

After trawling through all that dirt, you’ll probably want somewhere spotlessly clean and refined to retire to for the night and the Montague on the Gardens Hotel – a 4 star boutique London hotel in Bloomsbury – is just a short walk from the Wellcome Collection, one of London’s quirky, free attractions.

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