Mon, Feb 12, 2018 - Page 8 News List

London’s ‘fatberg’ on show

The Whitechapel Monster, a giant block of grease from the sewers, comes to the Museum of London. Is it a monument to the age of waste?

By Tim Adams  /  The Guardian

In many cases the job of flusher in London is a family occupation, the work traditionally passed down from father to son, much like the job of undertaker. Saunders was out with some second and third-generation sewer flushers, the other evening, men who have been doing the job for 30 years themselves. In the past, they suggested, there was a good deal of job satisfaction in the work; it had a nice psychological trajectory: they started a shift with a blockage, and ended it with the sewer flowing freely. It is only in the last few years that they have found themselves routinely hacking away at fatbergs.

When the Museum of London decided to take a chunk of the material the flushers raised an eyebrow, Sparkes recalls. The idea is that the world below street level does not invade the world above. The size of the sample was inevitably limited by what could come up through a manhole.


The museum ended up with two sizeable chunks. To give a sense of its original serpentine scale they thought about installing it in a case with Victorian infinity mirrors which would extend it as far as the eye could see, but that idea was eventually abandoned.

Because the substance itself is somewhat volatile though, and of an unusual consistency, they still had to rewrite procedure to work out how to deal with it.

“We had our head of conservation look at it,” Sparkes says. “We initially thought about pickling it like one of Damien Hirst’s cows. The problem with that, we felt, was that it would likely make it liquid and runny.”

What they did instead was to dry the samples. They did this at different rates, uncertain how it would respond. In the event, the one that was dried most quickly has crumbled into pieces; the other remains intact.

Health and safety was an inevitable concern.

“Worst case scenario if it is handled incorrectly is death,” Sparkes suggests. “It has come out of the sewer so it might contain Weil’s disease.”

There was a fear it might also hide disposed needles — another hazard of the modern sewer — so it was x-rayed with that in mind. Museum staff still approach the fatberg with extreme caution, in full body protective suits and masks and disposable gloves, disinfecting as if they are in an operating room. The fatberg remains in quarantine ready to be encapsulated in a specially sealed case.

“One of the problems is you get all sorts of things that live inside it,” Sparkes says. “One of our samples unexpectedly hatched loads of flies in store.”

As well as breeding maggots, the fatberg breeds metaphors. It is hard not to think of it as a tangible symbol of the way we live now, the ultimate product of our disposable, out of sight, out of mind culture.

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