London museum is livestreaming a key 21st-century artifact—festering sewage

Enlarge / The last remaining piece of a monster fatberg that was discovered in Whitechapel sewers last September.

You can now feast your eyes on a festering chunk of solidified sewage as it ages, not-so-gracefully, inside a specially-designed isolation case that is being livestreamed from a museum in London.

Is there anything more 21st century than that?

The rancid refuse was chipped off an infamous sewer clog discovered in London late last year called the Whitechapel “Fatberg”—the preferred term for such muck monsters. The complete clog clocked in as an epic 250-meter-long, 130-metric ton mass of congealed excrement and waste, thought to be one of the largest—if not the largest—fatbergs ever identified. Authorities found it blocking a Victorian-era sewer line in the eastern Whitechapel area of the city. They spent nine long weeks in a subterranean war, hacking and blasting away the hardened blob of feces, fats, wet wipes, and various other detritus.

As Thames Water authorities donned biohazard suits to do battle in the bowels of the city using pressure hoses and shovels, curators at the Museum of London smelled a fresh opportunity to document our times.

“We always knew, I think, that it would have been a quirky story,” Andy Holbrook told Ars recently in an interview. He’s the collection care manager of the Department of Conservation and Collection Care at the Museum of London. The fatberg “kind of appeals to the child-like sense of things that are gross,” he explains. But at the same time the museum was running a season of themed exhibits called “City Now City Future.”

It was “all about thinking about how city infrastructure is and how it might be in the future,” Holbrook said. “The fatberg story fit really nicely into that.” With changing lifestyles, diets, and infrastructure, as well as growing populations, “maybe fatbergs are just a product of this time and we won’t have them in the future,” he said. That got the museum thinking: “this thing is like a piece of 21st-century archeology.”

Holbrook and his colleagues talked Thames Water into handing over a couple of manageable chunks. One is about the size of a shoebox while the other is a bit smaller. The rest of the dislocated fatberg is in the hands of a waste company that will convert it into 100,000 liters of biodiesel.

At the museum, curators tackled the novel challenge of trying to preserve the putrid pieces, packed with pathogens, feces, and hidden life. They built a three-box system to protect themselves and patrons from the toxic specimens and gave the chunks several months in quarantine to dry out and stabilize. The petrified hunks went from a brown, fecal color to more of a bone-like ivory, Holbrook said. In the museum, mold grew on them and flies hatched out. The chunks also went from smelling like pungent, raw sewage to a “damp Victorian basement.”

The team also sent stinky slivers off to a lab for analysis (PDF). There, chemists assessed the composition in terms of fats, metals, and fecal content. The main ingredient of the Whitechapel fatberg is palmitic acid, an unsaturated fat found in butter, palm oil, and olive oil, as well as meat, cheeses, and milk.

The current hypothesis for the fatberg’s formation is that that such fat from cooking residue and waste went down the drain, separated into a fatty layer on the wastewater surface, and reacted with calcium deposits to form a soap in a process called saponification. Such saponified solids then act as sticky scaffold that glom onto sewer walls, grow, and snare other debris, slowly forming a monstrous mass.

From February to the start of July, the museum put the extracted excrement on exhibit, describing it as something like the picture of Dorian Gray but for society: the dark, disgusting side of ourselves. It was a hit, to say the least. In addition to hordes of visitors and engagement with the museum, curators saw an unexpected artistic response to the petrified muck. There was a musical written about it and poems composed, Holbrook said. One young boy requested a fatberg-themed birthday cake.

One artist endeavored to recreate fatbergs representing different neighborhoods in London with the nuanced fatberg aromas. For instance, one fatberg replica was inspired by a hipster-dense area of the city. “It still had the strong smell of fatberg,” Holbrook said, but with notes of coffee and beard oil. Another representing an area with a high-density of Indian restaurants had a hint of curry in the background, Holbrook said.

It “has been pretty amazing,” he said, reflecting on all of the artistic responses.

The Fatberg livestream

Given the popularity, the museum moved to add the sewage to its permanent collection—and set up a livestream from quarantine. Even though the chunks are now in isolation, the action hasn’t stopped. Since the exhibits, the preserved fatberg has sprouted new mold growth, identified as aspergillus.

As for Thames Water, the utility hopes the fatberg frenzy helps encourage people to only flush down drains the “three Ps.” That is, pee, poop, and (toilet) paper.

Images of the fatberg chunks and analysis courtesy of the Museum of London

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