You might be forgiven for thinking that “the Beast” of London's Whitechapel district is a nickname for Jack the Ripper, but in fact it is the name of a much more recent villain. In September 2017, sewer workers in London discovered the Beast in the Whitechapel sewer, a “fatberg” made of oil and grease poured down London drains mixed with flushed wet wipes, diapers and condoms that failed to disintegrate. The Beast weighed in at 130 tons, the weight of about 19 African elephants and stretched 820 feet, almost stretching the total length of the London Bridge. Though it was cleaned out by sewer workers, a bit of the Beast still remains, and now, as Mark Brown at The Guardian reports, the lipid-curious can take a look at a bit of the fatberg at the Museum of London.
So why would a museum put a rancid piece of grease and diapers on display? According to the museum, its collection already includes exhibits on London’s Victorian-era sewer system, which in the 19th century helped the city fight water-borne diseases and problems with open sewage. At the time is was a huge innovation, but now that system is struggling to keep up with modern plumbing and modern sewage. In recent decades, the amount of oil and grease dumped into the sewer has multiplied, and residents have not gotten the message that wet wipes, diapers and other things do not belong in the toilet. All that has led to a plague of fatbergs in the last decade. “Here at the museum we are all about reflecting the real lived experience of Londoners and it is part of our season exploring the highs and lows of London city life,” Vyki Sparkes, the curator of social and working history, tells Brown. “I don’t think you can get much lower than a fatberg.”
Brown reports that getting a chunk of the sewer gunk on display is harder than you might think. The Whitechapel fatberg—which was akin to concrete--was cut to pieces using high-powered hoses, though those eventually failed to do the trick and shovels and saws were required. Workers then lifted chunks out through manholes. That means not many large pieces were recovered or saved.
To preserve their piece of the berg, the museum chose to dry it rather than freeze or pickle it. That reduced the overwhelming smell, but Sharon Robinson-Calver, who led the conservation team, tells Brown there are still drain-fly larvae in the fat, which still occasionally mature and fly out. “They seem quite happy,” she says. “They’ve got a good food source. They pop out and fly around from time to time, which will be fascinating for visitors. It is part of the mystery of the fatberg, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
According to the museum, curators had been hoping to put a bit of a fatberg on display for a couple years when the Whitechapel behemoth was discovered. They first x-rayed the fatberg to make sure it did not contain needles or any harmful objects. While the display was constructed, the mass was stored in a three-box system to prevent it from contaminating anyone. The samples were then sealed in special units before being put in the display cases.
Sam Knight at The New Yorker witnessed a fly emerging from the fatberg when he recently visited the exhibit. He describes one of the two chunks on display as the size of a loaf of bread, putty-colored and marked with “geologic-looking” indentations, including some fingerprints. There was an autumn leaf stuck to the fat as well as the wrapper of a Double Decker chocolate bar sticking out of the edge. The other display box contains a crumbled piece of fatberg that looks like a mound of truffles.
Andy Holbrook, of the museum’s conservation department, says the fat chunk will remain on display for six months. Since conserving sewage is a pretty new museum science, he says he is unsure how long the chunk will last after that. “I think we will wait and see. It might explode. It might turn into a hundred million flies. We don’t know,” he tells Knight. “I don’t think we are completely committed to keeping it.”
But there may be hope for the fatberg. In the past, keeping fats in cold, oxygen-less environments has preserved them for centuries, as in the case of Irish bog butter. Divers have also recovered 340-year-old cheese from a shipwreck in Sweden.
In the meantime, Becky Trotman at Thames Water tells the BBC that she hopes the display will raise public consciousness about the sewer system and how it shouldn’t be treated, well, like a sewer. “This display is a vivid reminder to us all that out of sight is not gone forever,” she says. “So please help keep London and all the sewers flowing -- don't feed the fatberg.”