You know you don’t have to like every decision a museum makes when you volunteer there. I think I can honestly say that I got off on the wrong foot with ‘Fatberg’. I was inured to its charms, 140 tonnes of fatty composition and congealed London leftovers did nothing for me.
Seriously Museum of London? A Fatberg? With contemporary museum collecting at an all time low, with the whole of London’s history at your fingertips, with astonishing archaeological discoveries at Walbrook, your priority is literally crap.
Back in February whilst volunteering in the archive one day, taking care of the Museum of London’s stunning collections, Andy Holbrook, Collection Care Manager, sidled up to me with these immortal words – “Do you wanna see my Fatberg?”
You want to know what I said? – “NO”. It’s a gimmick, a waste of money. My fellow volunteer concurred with me. I was going to make a stand against Fatberg, no, you can’t win me over with grease, cooking fat and old wet wipes. I’m not having it.
I carried on my work, but the thought of it sat there, pulsating, stuck in my head like a lump of waxy waste, no longer clogging the sewers of Whitechapel, rather it blocked my thought processes with its feculence.
So I gave in, I thought I’d take a peek. I was so unimpressed I didn’t even take my phone with me. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, seriously, the woman who has 10,000 photos on her phone and tweets a million times a day didn’t even take a phone.
In a small side room I met Fatberg, it was… strangely underwhelming. The crusty white, crumbly exterior was reminiscent of Moon rock (not that I have seen any close up) and not oozing or slimy at all.
It even featured a rather charming sweet wrapper poking out. Closer inspection yielded hairs, and … Oh My God, a fly was buzzing about. Eurgghhhh – WHERE IS MY PHONE?
I ran back to get my phone. I feel ashamed to say I ran for Fatberg. It had begun to ensnare me with its charms. We must have spent 20 minutes in that small room attempting to photograph flies that were coming out of the Fatberg and flying round the small case. We talked all things Fatberg, how they decided which bit to display, how they worked with Thames Water to get hold of a piece, how their first attempts at freeze drying it had left a section broken up and fragile, and whether the sweet wrapper was a Double Decker or a Fudge bar.
When I looked up from my phone, I noticed right next to the case was the amazing Roman sarcophagus recently discovered in Southwark. That is when it hit me. Fatberg is London, it is us. We are FATBERG. (I can tell you might not all be quite with me yet).
Fatberg is just like that Roman sarcophagus (honestly), it tells us of our customs, and practices, our rituals and our priorities (or lack of them). A small section of Fatberg stuck to me that day (metaphorically not literally) and from then on I couldn’t get it out of my mind, it grew bigger and bigger.
But the next big question was – What would the public think? Surely the cynical British public would see it for what it was – the Emperor’s New Fatberg Clothes?
So I hit the Museum of London on opening day, I was going to capture visitor reactions and see for myself what visitors thought.
Quite frankly I was amazed, it was a Fatberg phenomenon, there was so much excitement and disgust in equal measure, I’ve never seen anything like it. I witnessed different generations sharing a moment, school kids and grandparents with fascination and horror etched on their faces.
My favourite quote was one visitor explaining to their companion that it was made up of ‘..wet wipes and shizzle.’ Maybe Fatberg was just for the young at heart? I stopped a retired couple to get their opinion – ‘Absolutely fantastic….It’s like Blue Planet and Attenborough all rolled into one, we need to educate everyone not to put fat down the drain.’ – Wow, quite remarkable.
Fatberg is beginning to deliver on all sorts of levels, a talking point, eco message and star attraction for all sorts of audiences. By the end of the day I was proudly wearing a ‘Don’t Feed the Fatberg’ badge and giving impromptu tours to visitors pointing out special zones of interest including dead flies.
Being the dedicated blogger I am, I took my Fatberg fascination to the next level by interview the head of conservation and collection care at the Museum of London, Sharon Robinson-Calver. I had so many questions. How do you conserve a Fatberg? How can you introduce an object into the gallery that is actively giving off flies?
What I learnt is that Fatberg is a conservation boon! They had no idea how the material would behave or how best to display it. They have worked extensively with Thames Water and engaged with new academic research partners to look at what it is made of, how toxic it is and how best to conserve it.
The international media can’t get enough of the London Fatberg, curators are sharing air time with a conservation team at the top of their game, explaining processes, techniques and collaborative working that highlights just how important every object is that comes into the Museum of London collections.
Dear reader, I am honestly quite consumed by Fatberg. Whenever I am in the museum I pop by to gaze into its gently sweating exterior. I hear Fatberg has inspired poetry and even a 9 year olds’ birthday cake (not currently on sale in the museum cafe). On the 22nd May I was witness to the first and last performance of ‘Fatberg the Musical’ at an underground bar in a central London pub as part of Museums Showoff. Seeing the head of Museum of London conservation and Fatberg curator Vyki Sparkes lead a stupendous rendition of a Beastie Boys-esque rap on Fatberg will haunt me for many years to come.
You only have a few more weeks to see Fatberg on display in the gallery and make up your own mind. What will happen to it then? Who knows? Will it be taken into permanently into the collection? Will I be volunteering one day in the archives and come across a small box labelled – Hazardous- FATBERG – Do Not Touch! I secretly hope so.
Fatberg has taught me it is ok to be cynical, it is ok to be a Fatberg hater. But also Fatberg has taught me to be open to new ideas and new ways of working because I have got to say that shizzle is the real deal.
Fatberg is on display for Free! (yes, really) at the Museum of London until 1 July.
You to can enjoy Fatberg the Musical – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N81g8TNyVLA