The Many Lives of Milk at the Wellcome Collection

Lauren Cantos visits and reviews ‘Milk’, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, 30 March – 10 September 2023.

The ‘Milk’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection explores the political, social, and cultural associations of milk. The exhibition is impressive in its breadth: the everyday substance of milk is shown to have cultural associations and significance beyond being a source of nutrition, an extractive commodity, or a familiar comfort.

A model of the Wellcome Collection building in a glass case
The Wellcome Research Institution building, Euston Road, London: a model for the building designed by Septimus Warwick. Photograph. Wellcome Collection. Source: Wellcome Collection.

The exhibition opens with cow’s milk and the everyday objects of dairy creamers and milk bottles. An imposing sculpture by Julia Bornefeld (slideshow image 2), which is evocative of cow’s udders, dominates the entrance: these items encapsulate the exhibition’s new perspectives on a familiar substance. A 1956 short film, made by a milk packaging company, promises a ‘new story’ of milk, foregrounding the inescapable consumerism of the product and its related industries. This question of who is promoting milk, and for what purposes, is something that recurs – presenting a clear tension with the well-worn adages about the utmost health benefits of milk consumption in adulthood.

The exhibition explicitly foregrounds milk’s connections with wider processes of colonialisation and racialisation. From the start and throughout the exhibition, there is an interesting problematisation of the putative status of cow’s milk as an always-healthy, universal substance. As ‘Milk’ notes, two thirds of the global population have trouble digesting the lactose from milk in adulthood with the genetic trait for digesting lactose in adulthood being more common in white Europeans and North Americans. The exhibition calls attention to public health posters which show milk being consumed by often white, often blond, families. These posters, alongside other promotional materials which contain more overt racialised language, construct a clear narrative where the consumption of cow’s milk is associated with whiteness. A video clip at another point in the exhibition — which captures various reactions to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration — shows US neo-Nazis chugging milk whilst voicing racist slogans. The connecting thread of these racialised representations of milk-drinking to signal whiteness across time and geographies is astonishing and underscores the cultural weight that milk holds both as a product and a symbol.

Cultures of Milk: Tracing Ideas of ‘Cleanliness’ and ‘Purity’

Elsewhere in the exhibition, posters and informational films detail the process of making milk ‘clean’ through pasteurisation and the increasing modernisation of new technologies for inspecting milk and monitoring its quality. A 1954 film clip by Express Dairy demonstrates the company’s novel methods of testing, processing, and packaging milk. The attention paid to communicating these innovations — and demonstrating the workings of their state-of-the-art machines — underscores the vast industry and profit potential that lies behind such informational films. These industrial motivations are difficult to disentangle from what, on the surface, appears as a public health interest.

An image of a woodcut depiction of a woman nursing an infant with the earth representing their body.
Figure 1: A woodcut from a seventeenth-century emblem book on display in ‘Milk’ – Atalanta Fugiens. 1618. Wellcome EPB/B/3980, 17

There is a brief, but fascinating, connection drawn between this interest in ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ milk in the twentieth century with earlier pre-modern beliefs about milk, especially breast milk. A seventeenth century emblem book (Wellcome EPB/B/3980) depicts a woodcut of a nursing woman with the earth representing their body: the accompanying emblem is translated as the ‘the earth is her/his nurse’. On the ground surrounding the woman, human babies suckle other animals, which both expands (and complicates) these conflations of nature with breastfeeding. This is likely a reference to the nurture of Romulus and Remus suckling a she-wolf, which attests to the power that breastfeeding plays in constructing national myth.

The notion of the nursing woman as natural is rampant in early modern literature and the way the exhibition ties together these earlier associations of nature with later associations of cow’s milk as ‘pure’ is fascinating. This is because sixteenth and seventeenth century midwifery and medical guides proliferated with advice for increasing the quality and purity of breast milk. Early modern medical writers such as Nicholas Culpeper, Thomas Raynalde, and Jane Sharp provided guidelines for wet-nurses to ensure they produced quality milk, suggesting a link between milk quality and the temperament, personality, and appearance of the nursing individual. These beliefs certainly have analogues with later twentieth century campaigns about milk cleanliness; although the exhibition does not spend too much time on these earlier cultural beliefs, it helpfully considers how these attitudes intersect across different periods. Overall, the decision to use this early modern emblem book to represent these pre-modern beliefs is a thought-provoking one.

In addition to early modern medical advice focusing on milk quality, early modern metaphors about nursing mothers – like that of the emblem book (see figure 1) — were also used to symbolise nationhood. Scholars like Jennifer Morgan, Rachel Trubowitz, and Wendy Wall have brilliantly written about the role that breastfeeding plays in the construction of nationhood. How such appropriations of milk stand in for national identity is evident in cultural depictions like Shakespeare’s Richard II (c. 1595) where Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) declares upon his banishment: ‘Then England’s ground, farewell; sweet soil, adieu – / My mother and my nurse which bears me yet’ (2.1.270-2). The way that the exhibition manages to connect early modern ideas with modern ones is persuasive: the early associations of milk and nature (and implicitly, national identity) anticipate later campaigns on milk purity.

Promoting Milk

Figure 2: Glass feeding bottle, London, England, 1901-1918. Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Collection.

These narratives of ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ milk frame the following ‘scientific motherhood’ section of the exhibition which focuses on baby milk and adjacent industries. This section contextualises the rise in advice books in both the US and UK in the nineteenth century and the history of early paediatric research. There are feeding bottles and advice booklets for new mothers on display: some booklets provide practical advice for new mothers but largely espouse social and moral fears about raising babies and children ‘incorrectly’ if their advice is not followed. There are also advertisements for Glaxo formula, and the popular nineteenth century Alexandra feeding bottle (figure 2), recalling the long industrial and pharmaceutical trajectories of the milk industry and the consumer-focused packaging of such advice. The exhibition also looks forward by including more contemporary and inclusive feeding aids, particularly models that feature a variety of skin colours. There is a stunning portrait by Lakisha Cohill of a group of breastfeeding mothers who resemble goddesses nursing their children on a rock cliff. The group called Chocolate Milk Mommies is a breastfeeding support group in Alabama for Black mothers. The caption notes the disparities in breastfeeding rates in the US, mentioning the historical exploitation of wet-nursing, which was often a forced labour where enslaved Black women nursed white infants and were typically separated from their own babies in the process. Wet-nursing is only mentioned once more and, in that context (nineteenth-century France), it is shown as a form of paid labour for women, underscoring the total disparity with which wet-nursing was experienced and enacted on both sides of the Atlantic.

Milk in school campaigns and the state’s role in promoting milk consumption is also explored. In Britain this was influenced through the Dairy Milk Council and in the US through the National Dairy Council. As the exhibition mentions, there are ‘mixed feelings’ in personal accounts about the milk in school campaigns as some felt unhappy being made to drink milk despite not liking it or feeling ill after drinking it. Reflecting on my own experiences, I do find it incredible that even as late as the 1990s and 2000s, my state school in the US only offered milk (or chocolate milk) as an option to drink. The way that the exhibition aligned these two types of public advice (for breast milk and subsequently for cow’s milk) is fascinating as the connections between both movements might not be immediately apparent when considered separately.

Creative Interpretations and Perspectives on ‘Milk’

‘Milk’ uses creative commissions and artists’ work to complement these social artefacts in an interesting way. Featured as a main image for the exhibition, the sculpture entitled ‘New Mourning II’ by Clementine Keith-Roach (slideshow image 6) movingly explores the artist’s journey with the process of weaning, visualised as a separation of the self and the body. The final room contains Jess Dobkin’s installation ‘For What It’s Worth’ (slideshow image 11) which reflects on the sale and commercialisation of milk: this goes beyond the milk bank and into the spaces and spheres of wellness, bodybuilding, and fetish cultures. The installation contains audio of Dobkin’s conversations with project collaborators as they reflect on personal experiences with breastfeeding and share knowledge with each other about historical trends of milk buying.

‘Milk’ had the daunting task of drawing together varieties of milk: breast milk, cow’s milk, and milk substitutes across different cultural contexts and time periods. The way these narratives intersect in the exhibition show the ubiquity of milk as a cultural symbol as well as a commodity. The connections made in ‘Milk’ offer audiences much to think about and ultimately emphasise a culture captivated by milk.

‘Milk’ opened on 30 March and closed 10 September. If you were unable to see it, there are images from the exhibition on Wellcome’s website and other related resources including fascinating explorations into modern day breast milk selling and buying.

Further Reading

Fildes, Valerie. 1986. Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fildes, Valerie. 1988. Wet-Nursing: A History from Antiquity to Present. Oxford: Blackwell.

Miles, Margaret R. 2008. A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Morgan, Jennifer L. 2004. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Penn Press.

Trubowitz, Rachel. 2012. Nation and Nurture in Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turner, Sasha. 2017. Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica.Philadelphia: University of Penn Press.

Wall, Wendy. 2002. Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author

Lauren Cantos completed her PhD in English at Queen Mary University of London where she examined cultural representations of breastfeeding and wet-nursing in early modern England. Lauren works as a Research Ethics Facilitator at UCL. She can be found on Twitter @lauren_cantos and contacted at l.cantos@ucl.ac.uk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.