LONDON — The Museum of London recently added an eyebrow-raising temporary exhibition to its collection: Fatberg!, which displays a chunk of the eponymous sewer clog that blocked the pipes of London’s Whitechapel neighborhood last fall. The massive lump of decaying sewage sits alongside ancient Roman mosaics and priceless medieval altarpieces.
As part of the museum’s City Now City Future season, staff members have wasted little time since the fatberg’s excavation, showcasing slices from the 130-ton, 250-meter-long fatty heap inside display cases. The exhibit includes accoutrements from the sanitation workers who removed the fatberg: a sterilization suite, pick axe, and shovel. Fatberg! also includes a short educational video outside the display, which explains the danger of fatbergs to the city’s infrastructure, and what London’s sanitation department is doing with the remnants of these sludge piles.
When the fatberg was first discovered, in September, it was the latest in a string of reminders that London has a dire sewage problem. Last June, raw sewage even began bubbling into the House of Commons basement. (Work on the Palace of Westminster’s pipes stalled amid broader debates about a multibillion-dollar building renovation — perhaps an allegory for the constipation of British Parliament since Brexit.) The city of London’s sewer is actually festooned with fatbergs of various sizes. Thames Water, the utility company that manages Greater London’s sewers and water systems, estimates it spends approximately a million pounds per month to remove them. Not coincidentally, Thames Water is a major sponsor of the exhibition.
The fatberg on display here is less vomitrocious than one might think. It has been air-dried and vacuum-sealed to prevent any airborne pathogens — or sulfuric smells — from leaking into the galleries. The chunks look more like pumice or moon stones than sewer sludge. Across their craggy surfaces are bits of litter that people inexplicably flushed down the toilet: candy wrappers, wet wipes, diapers, and condoms. It’s less disgusting than it is disappointing, on a human scale — though the gallery attendant enthusiastically remarked that newborn flies could still theoretically hatch from inside the fat glob at any given moment.
A rotting mass of filth symbolizes more than a rise in London’s population, or the age and state of its infrastructure. After all, waste is one of the best ways to learn about a society. Many critics have pointed to the fatberg phenomenon as a sign of consumer excess, but according to the Museum of London, fatbergs are 62% fat — of which 53% is palmitic fat, a component found in household cleaning products and olive oil. Only 9% of its composition is labeled as “other,” which would likely encompass the various trash items listed above. Who is to blame? The companies who market diapers and wet wipes as biodegradable, when they often aren’t, or the consumers too lazy to reach for the trash bin
Fatberg! does have a sort of silver lining. Because these gutter giants contain a high fat content, scientists can transform fatbergs into biofuel. The Whitechapel fatberg, which once weighed more than a double-decker bus, may now be powering an actual double-decker bus across London. It seems that London can run on the exhaust fumes of its own exhaust fumes.
Fatberg! continues at the Museum of London (150 London Wall, London) through July 1.