edited by: Honor Beddard, Marianne Templeton
London, Wellcome Collection, 2023
Trinity College Dublin
Date accessed: 4 December, 2023
The very first displays in Milk, a major Wellcome Collection exhibition, convey the strangeness of a food we all know well. Entitled 'the story of milk', the opening room sparks reflection on the oddness of the narratives and images imprinted on a deceptively simple part of our diet. Hanging in the centre seems to be the familiar shape of a cow's udder, only this oversized sculpture has 13 teats, is painted with coal dust, and resembles on closer inspection a woman's breast. On one side, a row of milk bottles, bags, and containers—those staples of the supermarket chiller aisle—look bizarre stripped of their logos and bleached the same brilliant white. On the opposite wall, there are four shelves of cow-shaped jugs, made in Stoke on Trent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and decorated in marvellous patterns and tones. In a curious reversal of nature, milk or cream is meant to pour out of the animal's mouth. Rolling on a screen is a 1950s promotional film, in which a benevolent male figure from a packaging firm confidently explains how drinking cow's milk had sustained mankind for millennia—a falsehood the curators unpick in the caption.
Story-telling is one of the central themes of Milk, a thorough and stimulating show that ran from March to September 2023. Focusing on the milk produced by cattle and humans, how these substances have been identified with good health, and how they have been used to nourish infants, the exhibition peels away the layers of meaning piled upon the white stuff, particularly in the last 200 years. The historical objects, which range from etchings of early cowsheds to glistening dairying apparatus to formula tins to public health propaganda, demonstrate the developing ideals about how milk should be produced and consumed. Creative works, straddling text, video, animation, photography, and immersive installations, urge visitors to ponder entrenched stories and power dynamics and how they can be resisted.
The exhibition begins by charting the spread of milk-drinking as a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It took off in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century, as the increasingly urbanised population benefitted from the rapid transport of the railways and more rational approaches to farming, processing, and hygiene. Fears about the contamination of milk by diseases like tuberculosis spurred the emergence of public health. In the twentieth century, governments began to encourage its consumption—in the Second World War, the weekly ration for two people included 7 pints—and expanding dairy firms advertised their products their products as nutritious and natural. These developments are illustrated brilliantly by examples of the objects and images they produced, including striking posters that exemplify the visual culture of their era. One designed for the postwar Ministry of Food shows the outline of a child with a milk bottle supporting his spine. The slogan reads, 'Milk: The Backbone of Young Britain'.
As the exhibition progresses, its other main subjects, breast-feeding and infant nutrition, become more prominent. The curators begin this story once again in the Victorian era, considering the rise of paediatric medicine and the encouragement and coercion of mothers to meet new standards for how children should be fed. This is a highly charged area, and the artefacts and their explanatory texts do an excellent job teasing out tensions associated with gender and race. A mother raising a child on her own milk has consistently been depicted as a maternal duty, even a patriotic one in times of national difficulty. But the physical, mental, and even economic toll this takes is minimised, as demonstrated in 'Milk Report', a print piece by artists Jen Conway and Jessy Young, detailing the 720 hours and seven minutes the latter spent breast-feeding her child in the six months after birth. Right down to the present, the overwhelming majority of advice and assistance has been directed towards white women of European descent. The striking nature of images like Lakisha Cohill's portrait of the Alabama-based peer support group, Chocolate Milk Mommies, underlines the partiality of the mainstream narratives. As the exhibition stresses repeatedly, ideas of whiteness are crucial to the modern dairy industry and the association of milk with purity and good health.
All of this is based on good history and the short reading list that concludes the exhibition guide has examples of recent scholarship. Historians will certainly come away having encountered several thought-provoking objects, which derive from the Wellcome's own holdings and dozens of other archives. Most people will find something to make them think a little harder about a seemingly humdrum foodstuff. As I overheard more than set of visitors remark, 'I never knew there was so much to think about with milk'. Presumably that reaction is just what this kind of show is meant to achieve.
I did, however, come away dissatisfied with how the whole picture hung together. Linking the milk of cows and humans is a fascinating decision, but there could have been more discussion of the choice to do so and greater interrogation of the relationship between the two. The first panel mentions that humans are one of the few mammals to drink the milk of other species, but this odd fact and its implications are largely left unexplored. It is one of the points where a longer and broader historical perspective could have helped. While mass milk-drinking is relatively new, the creation of preserved dairy products is decidedly ancient. Objects like a container and charcoal stick that Kalenjin herders use to make mursik, a thick, sour milk with a greyish colour, remind us that alternative preferences and technologies endure. As does a tiny terracotta sculpture from classical Italy of a mule laden with trays of cheese. How many of dairy's modern problems are associated with the last two centuries? How has milk production differed in the past and how might that history inform our relationship to animals in the future? How were milk and other foods used to feed children and why?
One of food history's problems is that, whatever its chosen topic, the analysis can race off in many directions, because what we eat is material and mundane as well as social, symbolic, and psychological. Even the very best commodity histories do not claim to be comprehensive. The challenge of explaining the choice of coverage must be especially hard in a museum context, where showing through objects is privileged over telling through lengthy prose. But Milk succeeds in giving visitors a vivid sense that this single food has a complicated and contested history. The questions about the milk people drink are more pressing and urgent than we might assume.