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Fatberg blocking London sewer could become museum exhibit

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Patrick Greenfield

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(Video provided by Reuters)

Part of a huge fatberg blocking a 250 metre stretch of London’s sewer network could go on display to the public after the Museum of London expressed an interest in obtaining a section of the 130 tonne mass of waste and fat.

The museum contacted Thames Water about acquiring a section of the congealed block of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil for their general collection following its discovery in a Victorian sewer in Whitechapel, east London.

Engineers for Thames Water are using shovels and high-powered jets to remove the fatberg, which was found during a routine inspection earlier this month, and is one of the largest ever found in London’s sewer network.

The Whitechapel ‘fatberg’ may be regarded as a historic artefact in 50 years’ time, according to Alex Werner from the Museum of London. © PA The Whitechapel ‘fatberg’ may be regarded as a historic artefact in 50 years’ time, according to Alex Werner from the Museum of London.

Alex Werner, lead curator for the new museum at the Museum of London, told the Guardian the fatberg “calls to attention the way we live our lives in a modern city”, and said the museum had been interested in acquiring a fatberg after similar discoveries in Kingston and Leicester Square.

He said: “It speaks to the breakdown in London’s infrastructure as we transition between periods. The sewer dates back to the 19th century, and is struggling to cope with the number of high-rise developments and population increases. In 50 years’ time, maybe it will be looked on as a historic artefact, because we’ll have solved this problem.” 

The Museum of London curator visited the site of the fatberg in east London on Wednesday and although he did not enter the sewer, he said hiding the fatberg’s smell would be a challenge.He continued: “Our challenge is to think of a way to make it presentable to the public. We need to work out a way we can store it and display it. It’s a bit like a specimen. We need to find a kind of fluid to maintain it for a long time. We have a bit of research yet to do.”

“It’s a horrid smell – fairly pungent. It’s the smell you’d expect from the sewer. I’m back in my office now and I can still smell it around my nose.”

He added: “Thames Water have a really difficult challenge. It’s a bit of a race against time to get rid of the blockage. All the surrounding basements in the area in Whitechapel could flood with sewage.”

Sharon Ament, director at the Museum of London, said: “Our year-long season, City Now City Future, explores what the future holds for people living in urban environments. It is important for the Museum of London to display genuine curiosities from past and present London.

“If we are able to acquire the fatberg for our collection I hope it would raise questions about how we live today and also inspire our visitors to consider solutions to the problems of growing metropolises. This could be one of the most extraordinary objects in any museum collection in London.”

Thames Water says it spends around £1m every month clearing blockages from its sewers in London and the Thames Valley – an average of three fat-related blockages every hour.

Earlier this year, the company announced it was exploring whether it could use recovered fatbergs for biodiesel, but said the eventual solution would have to come from the proper disposal of waste by consumers and businesses. 

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