The Museum of Everyday Life celebrated its fifth year of existence by delving deep into this most ubiquitous substance. Dust coats every surface in our homes, congeals in our nasal passages, floats across continents, settles onto the ocean floors, and rains down from the sky as a diaphanous reminder of the origins of the cosmos. The Bible places it at the start and the finish of everything, and science agrees: it is now understood that without a thick cloud of dust stars cannot form. More than one hundred tons of space dust falls to earth every day. But what could be more ordinary than dust? We brush it from the surfaces of everything in our homes. It gathers with the cat hair and lint under the bed and it clings to spiders’ webs in the corners. Day to day, it is difficult to keep in mind dust’s terrifying power of erasure. We don’t necessarily think of it until we see it blanketing fields and valleys after a volcanic eruption or see photographs in history books of entire farms buried alive during the Dust Bowl.
Dust also marks time. Its inexorable accumulations make visible the minutes and hours and years. As our bodies age, we witness our own parts turn to dust, as joints grind away, teeth crack and wear, hair falls out and becomes brittle. Watching dust slowly circulate in a shaft of sunlight can be melancholy or transcendent, depending on the moment and the thoughts in our head. Maybe this is because dust is essential, a basic ingredient in everything.