Milk has long held a critical role in society, even if it’s not immediately apparent. It’s one of our most important food sources, countless people drink it daily, including babies and children to spur their growth, and it’s featured in some of the most memorable ads of the past 25 years (“Got milk?”).
It’s anything but basic, and its necessity is currently the subject of a new exhibition, simply titled “Milk,” at the Wellcome Collection in London, through September 10, that takes on the subject with close attention to milk’s societal impact on global politics, economics, and culture. The show looks at milk’s deep-rooted past to humanity, our present relationship with the superfood, and our changing perceptions of it and how that might impact milk’s future.
Curated by Marianne Templeton and Honor Beddard, “Milk” features over 100 works ranging from objects used in infant feeding and farming to advertisements and public health posters, as well as works of contemporary art and new artist commissions.
One of the first works you see is a giant, black cow udder, stretched and sagging from carrying milk. Made of metal, coal dust, textile, and paint, Julia Bornefeld’s 1995 untitled hanging sculpture draws out how a maternal body, both human and animal, as both a site of extraction and care, a recurring theme across the exhibition.
But first some history. Dairy products, and methods of their preservation, date back centuries, with that ancient history represented here by a Roman terracotta model of a mule carrying two trays loaded with cheeses, dating to the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. Milk consumption largely spread because of European colonialization, which imposed the drink as a cultural standard; European dairy cattle breeds, like the Holstein-Friesian, are still the most common globally. Though, according to wall text explaining the “Story of Milk,” around two-thirds of the world’s population has difficulty digesting milk, especially into adulthood.
In an eight-minute animated video titled White (2022), Danielle Dean highlights the role of milk as a tool for colonial narratives. She explores the impact of dairy cattle in the area around Mount Taranaki in New Zealand, a place deforested by British colonial settlers in the 19th century to create grazing pastures. The video shows the forest covered in white matter contaminating it. Nature’s destruction gives way to green fields dotted with cows. The animation runs on a loop, going back to the forest showing an imagining of what it could look like if it were rewilded.
“The animation imagines what the forest would have been like before it was cleared,” Templeton said in an interview. “The artist worked with the Ngāruahine Iwi, who are one of eight Iwi (Māori tribes) in the Taranaki region, to research the plants and animals, and has reconstructed an imagined version of the landscape through a layering of intricately detailed watercolor drawings.”
The show’s primary focus, however, is on the modern milk system, looking at how it became a central part of people’s diets. Milk consumption became popularized in Britain with the rise of coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which expanded during the Industrial Revolution. As the urban population grew, so did the demand for milk. A two-minute video titled “The Daily Round: The Story of Milk Production and Distribution” shows the Express Dairy company pasteurizing milk with advanced equipment in their factory before being transported on milk trains. Large dairy corporations took control of production as dairy products became centralized. (Today, dairy farms rely on labor from migrant workers, which has decreased since Brexit and has been further exacerbated by Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine.)
In the US, beginning in the early 20th century, milk’s popularity was aided by powerful marketing campaigns that at times weren’t what they seemed. Advertisers created campaigns promoting the white nuclear family as the face of milk; the underlying emphasis on “purity” was not subtle. It also gave eugenicists like Herbert Hoover (later the 31st US President) the tool to argue his racist pseudo-theory of associating the purity of “natural” milk with ideologies of whiteness and racial hierarchy. A 1920s advertisement included in the show quotes Hoover saying, “The white race cannot survive without dairy products.”
Nearby, Luke Turner’s 2017 three-minute video parallels Hoover’s racist ideals. Turner invited the public to respond to the words “He Will Not Divide Us” in a live stream beginning on January 20, 2017, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. The footage shows American Neo-Nazis drinking milk as they chant racist and antisemitic slogans.
Milk being used for political agendas is not a thing of the past, as seen in a limited-edition hat advertising “Government Cheese,” a processed cheese given to American welfare recipients, a disproportionate number of which are Black and Latinx households who have a higher risk of health conditions linked to the consumption of saturated fats, found in Government Cheese. The cheese became a symbol in pop culture with musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z mentioning it in their music as a reference to the poverty they had experienced.
Similarly, advertising campaigns, like the “Got Milk?” campaign in the US and the British version “Make Mine Milk” likewise entered the cultural milieu with a host of celebrities promoting the health benefits of including milk in one’s diet.
A section titled “Scientific Motherhood” highlights how, for example, a crocheted portable weighing scale used by a Health Visitor in the 1930s to weigh babies during home visits became an anxiety-inducing object for many mothers, especially if the baby was underweight. Poor women often lacked the right nutrition and unable to provide enough breastmilk needed for the baby’s growth. (Baby formula milk, first introduced in the 1860s, is a powdered substance consisting of cow milk that was advertised as a “perfect substitute” for breast milk by companies like Glaxo.) These standards in weight and nutrition, developed around white women’s bodies, still persist today and continue to overlook how class, race, and social mobility impact a child’s development.
Other artworks in the exhibition include a captivating 14-minute video projection, with bespoke seating and wallpaper, by Ilana Harris-Babou that was commissioned by the Wellcome Collection. Titled Let Down Reflex (2023), the video includes personal testimonies on breastfeeding by the artist’s mother, sister, and niece, reflecting on the wider political context that surrounds infant feeding. The work also references the lullaby “All the pretty horses,” which is said to have been sung by an enslaved African mother who had been separated from her baby to wet nurse and care for her enslaver’s child. Harris-Babou’s work highlights the horrific and traumatic history of the transatlantic slave trade in which enslaved women were robbed of their bodily autonomy, while also linking it to the present-day inequalities in Black maternal healthcare in the US and UK.
The final part of the show, titled “The Cost of Milk,” encourages viewers to consider the values that underpin our food systems and the choices we make as consumers. Works from Eve Bull with her zine DIY Oat Milk, instructing people how to make oat milk at home, looks at the environmental impact of lifestyle choices and the challenges of ethical consumption in a capitalist system. Commercially produced plant-based milk is sold at a higher price compared to cow milk—environmentalism then risks becoming a concern only the wealthy can afford to care about.
The exhibition’s final work, Jess Dobkin’s commissioned installation For What It’s Worth (2023), examines the ethics, regulation, and complex systems in which human milk and those who produce it are both valued and devalued. She also highlights the rise of human breast milk sales online consumed by bodybuilders, fetishists, and alternative health enthusiasts in the 21st century. The soundtrack played in the room includes excerpts from conversations Dobkin had with her research collaborators during the making of the project.
“I keep coming back to a comment made by [collaborator] Charity Mwebaze,” Beddard said, “that throughout history, a woman is either an animal because of the milk that she produces, or she’s divine also because of the milk that she produces.”