Milk at the Wellcome Collection review: a fascinating deep dive into the white stuff

·4-min read
Cow-shaped cream jug (Courtesy of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent)
Cow-shaped cream jug (Courtesy of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent)

Very few of us are aware of the complexity of things we consume. Bread, milk, tea and sugar are all items with a rich history that are plopped into our shopping baskets without a second thought.

Milk, the latest exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, uses more than 100 items, including historical objects, artworks and new commissions to examine the way in which the foamy white liquid has become central to our lives: as much a political symbol as a constant in our daily diet.

It begins by exploring how dairy milk is made and its journey to the mass market. While dairy production dates back as far as the 7000 BC, drinking fresh milk is a relatively modern phenomenon. In the early 20th century, it became the ultimate health food when scientists first discovered its abundance of vitamins and minerals.

Various posters on display from the 1920s and 1930s imagine it almost as a miracle food; one even describes it as the “backbone of young Britain”. Hundreds of thousands of British children received free milk at school until the policy was scrapped in 1971 by soon-to-be Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to great public outcry.

Milk: The backbone of young Britain (IWM)
Milk: The backbone of young Britain (IWM)

The idea of milk as a drink symbolising “purity” eventually became co-opted by the white supremacist far-right. One clip shown at the exhibition, filmed by artist Luke Turner a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration in March 2017, shows a group of neo-Nazis drinking milk out of cartons while chanting antisemitic and racist slogans. In another butter advert from the 1920s, former US President Herbert Hoover says the “white race cannot survive without dairy products”.

These views have historical precedent, with white northern Europeans colonising large swathes of fertile land for dairy farming throughout the 19th century. Artist Danielle Dean’s White is a thrilling animation which shows a lush Māori forest in New Zealand being laid to waste by British settlers in order to clear the land for cattle. To this day, the region is a major centre for dairy science.

In recent years, oppressed political groups have sought to reclaim milk as a symbol of resistance. Intifada Milk, a 2015 zine on display, depicts a Palestinian community who buy 18 cows and create their own cooperative farm rather than rely on deliveries of milk from Israeli dairies. Control of the production of something as simple as milk is seen as an act of liberation.

The other half of the exhibition focuses on human milk, examining how nursing and feeding has changed for women across centuries. I was particularly struck by Ilana Harris-Babou’s Let Down Reflex, which combines video of a cascading flurry of milk bubbles with testimony from her mother and sister on the experience of breastfeeding and their reflections on the challenges of black motherhood. Clementine Keith-Roach’s New Mourning II, created the day after the artist stopped breastfeeding, evokes the separation of mother and child during weaning: the anxiety of letting another body sustain itself for the first time.


The only thing lacking in this exhibition is its reluctance to examine the rise in popularity of non-dairy milk. There has been a huge growth in sales of almond, oat and soya milk in recent years, with most major supermarkets now stocking an array of vegan alternatives. Recent research by Mintel found that nearly a third of Britons drink plant-based milk and it is now a £400m-a-year market. Does this threaten the long-term viability of dairy milk? It is an issue that could have been explored in greater depth.

There also could have been more of a focus on the overwhelmingly negative environmental impact of the milk industry. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Oxford found that producing a glass of dairy milk results in nearly three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk. In the long-term, it is uncertain that milk can be produced sustainably at its current rate without laying waste to the environment.

Prior to my visit, I feared that I might lose interest while spending two hours staring at giant udders and milk cartons. But this is an accomplished and engaging exhibition which succeeds at striking a delicate balance between storytelling and sensory stimulation.

Wellcome Collection, to September 10;