Got milk? New exhibition explores the dark side of dairy

‘Milk’, a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London, explores the socio-political weight of milk through art and cultural artefacts

milk materials
Milk, by Lucy + Jorge Orta
(Image credit: © Lucy + Jorge Orta / ADAGP Paris, 2022. Reproduced with permission of Lucy + Jorge Orta, courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Milk is a tool of empire, a central motif of the maternal body and a staple of the human diet and is unique in its ability to cross political, cultural and economic spheres. Now, the Wellcome Collection knits together these disparate strands in a new London art exhibition, ‘Milk’, which considers everything from the perceived daily healthy habit to milk’s status as a marketing tool for the white nuclear family, alongside a wider consideration of the changing landscape of dairy farming.

milk materials

Untitled, Julia Bornefeld, 1995

(Image credit: © artist and ARTantide Gallery, Verona; Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman, Innsbruck/ Wien. Photo by Helmut Kunde. Courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Milk: exploring the politics of dairy

‘Milk is woven into the everydayness of our lives, whether it’s in a cup of tea or coffee, or in the routines of infant feeding. It’s something many of us in the UK take for granted,’ say exhibition curators Marianne Templeton and Honor Beddard. ‘It’s also a medium through which we can unpick larger questions about our diets and food system, the politics and economics of infant feeding, relationships between humans, animals and the environment. Why do we eat and drink what we do, and who gets to choose what they eat? Milk has been central to many people’s diets in the UK for over a century. Most households still buy dairy milk but there are now many milk alternatives available. We are also at a crossroads for the dairy industry after Brexit, with the potential for new policies to shape the sector and an urgent need for climate-conscious agriculture. At the same time, human milk is making its way into online markets and companies are starting to prototype synthetic versions of human milk.’

Milk, Wellcome Collection, 2023

'Milk', Wellcome Collection, 2023

(Image credit: Photography: Steven Pocock)

This distinctive status given to milk is here reflected in a mish-mash of media, from historical models in terracotta of a mule carrying cheese, dating from the 3rd or 2nd century BC, to contemporary pieces from artists including Julia Bornefeld, Sarah Pucill, Hetain Patel, and Lucy + Jorge Orta. They join materials, from 1930s marketing to a 19th-century feeding bottle, in a diverse exploration into how milk came to be a staple of our everyday diets. Milk’s political role is due in part to its role in marketing campaigns of white families – the face of milk – but also acknowledges the impact of Herbert Hoover’s eugenicist manipulation of the relationship between ‘natural’ milk and social purity. 

These references sit alongside personal narratives that explore the hijacking of the breastfeeding narrative by formula companies, feeding into issues of empire and exploration, a tension expressed in the work of the artists. ‘A new commission by Ilana Harris-Babou, Let Down Reflex, combines personal testimonies about breastfeeding by the artist’s mother, sister and niece with the wider political context that surrounds infant feeding,’ the curators say. ‘It explores the relationship of the individual to maternal health care systems, the inequalities within these structures and how these impact the choices that are available to new parents. The first-hand testimony within this work allows us to think about the passing down of maternal knowledge and how these ideas and beliefs sit alongside public health messaging. The work references the lullaby ‘All the pretty horses’, which was said to have been sung by an enslaved African mother who was separated from her infant in order to care for and wet-nurse her enslaver’s child. Harris-Babou draws links between this traumatic history and the severe inequalities in Black maternal health outcomes seen today in the US and UK.’

Milk poster

Milk: The backbone of young Britain

(Image credit: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4944), courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Cow-shaped cream jug

Cow-shaped cream jug. White with blue willow-pattern transfer

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, courtesy Wellcome Collection)

The exhibition eschews a strictly chronological order, although the curators point out that to understand the future of milk, the history must be clearly established. ‘What’s remarkable in many cases is that you might be looking at a historical object, but a lot of the questions it raises are still very relevant today. For example, in the section on Scientific Motherhood we have included some crochet infant weighing scales from the 1930s. These would have been used by health visitors during home visits to new mothers to weigh the infant. Those weights would have been plotted on development charts based on standardised weights for the baby’s age. A perceived ‘failure’ to meet these standards or expectations can create feelings of shame or anxiety, even though these standards do not recognise the many different factors that can impact on birth weight, for example health conditions or income. Weighing infants and relying on data and measurements to determine the healthy progress of an infant is still widely debated today, with many feeling it fuels insecurities around insufficient breastmilk that can impede breastfeeding progress.’

Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, Evelyn Mary Dunbar, 1940

Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, Evelyn Mary Dunbar, 1940

(Image credit: Courtesy of Imperial War Museums)

Ultimately, the curators are keen for visitors to consider questions such as why we think milk is so essential to our health, who decides what good health is, what values our food systems are built on and how milk has been used to exert power as well as provide care. ‘Milk is a subject both personal and political, and the exhibition aims to show how it touches on many aspects of our lives, whether we drink it or not,’ the curators add. ‘We hope visitors will consider the impacts of the standardisation and regulation of milk and of the bodies that produce and consume it, and the role science and industry have played in shaping ideas about milk that are present in Britain today.’ 

Milk is curated by Marianne Templeton and Honor Beddard, it is open until 10 September 2023 and it is free to visit.

Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels.