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The White Stuff and its Discontents

Luke Dale reviews the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, ‘Milk’.

Most people don’t think about milk very often. Milk may be a staple of every Briton’s fridge, but it doesn’t service small-talk. At most, perhaps, a remark on a vegan colleague’s ‘oat drink’ will stir up a tense exchange of words about the dairy industry in an office kitchen. Otherwise, milk would seem to occupy—not unhappily—a subsidiary role in the dietary diary. A splash added to a morning bowl of muesli, or a dash in a cup of tea: such are, it seems, the quiet honours of milk. 

But have we been drinking our milk too uncritically? This is the question posed by the new exhibition, Milk, at the Wellcome Collection—and their answer, of course, is a resounding ‘yes’. Milk—we are told in the free brochure—is a “highly politicised liquid” used to “exert power”. It is inextricably bound up with ‘whiteness’ and the British Empire. What’s more, as we learn later, milk is also a commodity, bought and sold by actors whose primary goal is not the health of the nation, but rather simply capital. Punters should be ready and willing to have any illusions they had about milk mercilessly dispelled in this fashion.

That the Wellcome Collection approaches milk through a critical-theoretical lens is not surprising. Last November, they closed their much-loved permanent display Medicine Man on the grounds that it “perpetuate[d] a version of medical history… based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”. Further justification for this assessment was not provided. Had the Wellcome suffered at the hands of a curatorial saboteur? Were the objects laid out in a prejudicial way? Speaking at the Sheldonian in February, Lord Sumption gave an alternative explanation: he argued that the museum “[was] proposing a political program for the modern day, supported by a highly selective approach to the past which sees everything through the prism of race.” This latest exhibition all but confirmed his view.

Of course the ‘whiteness’ of milk is on one level crucial; it announces a hearty sap, drawn fresh from the udder, uncontaminated and unsoured. The nutty hue of milk-substitutes, by contrast, acts as the first sign that something is amiss—be it oat or almond. But the conspiratorial minds behind this exhibition have drawn on two further facts to foist upon milk an unlikely racial significance. First: 5,000 years ago, lactase persistence—the genetically-determined ability for adult humans to digest the lactose in milk—developed in Southern Europe, and has since become present in 90% of Europeans. Elsewhere in the world, particularly among non-white populations, lactase persistence is rare. Second: Britain was, until recent decades, a relatively ethnically homogenous society. As such, marketing and health campaigns—such as those promoting babies’ health—tended to focus on the needs of the majority, which may not reflect the needs of today’s population.

Innocent though these facts may appear, they are foundation upon which the prosecution case rests—namely in an absurd emphasis of the former, and a wilful ignorance of the latter. The imagined world of the exhibitioners is one in which the Milk Marketing Board deploys spurious propaganda of milk’s health benefits to promote the consumption of a racist liquid. Campaigns for wider access to milk, which might have been interpreted as an enrichment of working-class dietary standards, are in fact charged with the grave sin of overlooking the lactose intolerant. “Nutritional science” we are informed “was used to establish the idea of cow’s milk as an essential food.” Whether this ‘idea’ has any truth to it is irrelevant—science is relegated to the backseat as ideological hobbyhorses are flogged to death.

Sadly, the Wellcome Collection’s approach is far from atypical. Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum is utterly in thrall of a kindred dogma, dismantling the Victorian-style displays that are its distinguishing feature under the auspices of a “change curator”. Meanwhile, at the Ashmolean, the ‘Our Museum Our Voices’ programme insists on the intercession of teenagers and their opinions between the patrons and the artwork—opinions which, it is fair to say, often happily correspond to the ideological inclination of the curatorial class. Increasingly, then, the heritage bequeathed to us in these museums is not just trapped in glass, but also in a host of moralising, ‘problematising’ and, ultimately, infantilising, narratives that are in their nature more political than educational.

When Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, pauses to consider the significance of whiteness in his own context, he concludes that it is an appalling “dumb blankness, full of meaning”. A similar point may be made of our exhibition’s milky exhibits: white in character, meaning can be projected onto their blankness to reflect our own interests. In this case, milk is merely the medium, the canvas of a study, in reality, of race, or of how race is conceived of in the minds of these curators. And as the grievances of the past bear down in ever greater number, there will be yet, it seems, much occasion for crying over unspilt milk.

Milk at the Wellcome Collection, London, is open 30 March – 10 September 2023

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