|"The Great Dust Heap at King's Cross" by E.H. Dixon|
But getting your hands dirty can also be irresistible, as every child knows. A major new museum exhibition in London asks visitors to think again about the filthy and the fetid, exploring the role of dirt as humanity's enemy and ally in history, art, science and medicine.
"Dirt is something we make and encounter every day," said James Peto, senior curator at the Wellcome Collection, where the exhibition opens Thursday.
Peto said the exhibition — "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life" — explores both the good and bad sides of dirt. "Some of it, in the right quantities and the right place, is good for us," he said. "Soil in the sense of 'soiled sheets' is bad, but soil where vegetables grow feeds us.
"And it's where we all end up in the end."
Filth's intimacy and omnipresence may explain some of the terror and fascination that dirt — defined by the exhibition as "dust, excrement, rubbish, bacteria and soil" — holds for us. We abhor it, but it's also a mark of progress — the more cities, industry and civilization there are, the more dirt, and finding ways to dispose of it has taxed societies for centuries. Dirt has also created commercial opportunities.
The exhibition, which ranges from 17th-century Holland to 21st century New York, looks at those who have made money from dirt, from river-combing mudlarks and the "toshers" who hunted for treasures in 19th-century sewers, to the manual scavengers of India, who clean latrines by hand — a practice that persists despite official attempts to ban it.
"The relationship between dirt and commerce is a long-standing one," said another curator, Kate Forde. "In medieval times, London's waste was sold to farmers outside the city to fertilize crops." Today, electricity is generated from incinerating some of the city's waste.
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