An enormous congealed blob of wet wipes, condoms, nappies, grease and cooking oil will be a rather startling star attraction at the Museum of London in 2018. Dubbed the ‘fatberg,’ it’s a portion of the 250-metre-long and 130-tonne mass that was found in September 2017 in a sewer under Whitechapel Road in London – the largest ever recorded.
Thames Water called it an ‘evil, gut-wrenching, rancid blob’, but the museum has decided to display a portion to demonstrate how
London’s sewers are being threatened. It says the British diet has changed in past decades to be oilier, so more fat ends up in the sewers, and people are flushing waste that the sewer system isn’t designed to cope with. The other factor is simply volume, because the population of London is growing far beyond what was envisioned when the sewers were built in the 1850s. The museum’s collection already contains objects from when London’s Victorian sewer system was built, after the city’s health was threatened by water polluted with diseases like cholera.
According to Sharon Robinson-Calver, head of conservation and collection care at the museum, the fatberg display will be used to explain the work that’s being done to solve the problems, in order to prevent more giant masses developing. “To deal with this fatberg, Thames Water worked in the sewer to break up the tunnel-blocking mass into manageable pieces, which they then extracted through a hose,” she says. “They drained off most of the water to return to the sewer system. It’s the crust of leftover fat and sewage, or at least a portion of it, that we will display in the museum.”
The museum has an extremely skilled team of conservators and collection care staff, who will conduct research to find out what the mass is made of, assess its chemical and structural integrity, and establish how to stabilise and safely display it. It may end up being contained in a sealed container within a display case for visitors to see. “It’s an especially difficult challenge for us as conservators, because we have to protect not just the fatberg, but also ourselves and our visitors,” says Sandra. “The fatberg in its current state is an extremely hazardous material, teeming with bacteria and releasing small amounts of toxic gases. Making it safe to display is an incredible challenge to be given, and very satisfying to try and solve.”
“Fatberg” will be on display at the Museum of London in early 2018, as part of the City Now City Future season, an exploration of the challenges and rewards of living on an urban earth.