Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life uncovers the grimy truth of human existence across centuries and continents.
The exhibition opens in March at the Wellcome Collection in London and builds on anthropologist Mary Douglas's observation that dirt is "matter out of place".
It introduces six starting points for investigating attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness: a 17th century home in Delft, Holland; a street in Victorian London; a hospital in 1860s Glasgow; a Nazi-era museum in Dresden; a community in present day New Delhi; and a New York landfill site due to be turned into a park.
Highlights include works by 17th century Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch; the earliest sketches of bacteria; 19th-century physician John Snow's "ghost map" of cholera; surgeon Joseph Lister's "scientific paraphernalia"; and a wide range of contemporary art.
When Lister arrived at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1860, 90 per cent of patients with broken limbs had amputations because infection levels were so high. His regime of cleanliness transformed the hospital and marked the birth of antiseptic surgery.
The darker side of the quest for a "clean" society led to the Nazi ideology of racial purity, as depicted at the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden.
In modern India's New Delhi, the scavenging existence of the Dalits, formally known as "untouchables", is explored.
Ken Arnold, director of public programmes at the Wellcome Collection, said: "Dirt is everywhere and periodically we get very worried about it. But we have also discovered that we need bits of it and guiltily, secretly, we are sometimes drawn to it.
"Dirt is a perfect subject for Wellcome Collection to explore in our eclectic fashion – the good and bad, the art and science, yesterday and today, in London, Glasgow, New York, Dresden, Delft and New Delhi."
The exhibition runs from March 24 to August 31, 2011.