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‘This thing is like a piece of 21st-century archaeology,’ said museum curator Andy Holbrook.
Last year, the world gaped in awe as Thames Water employees discovered a “monstrous” mass of congealed excrement and waste blocking a Victorian-era sewer tunnel in the east side of London, in the Whitechapel area.
Dubbed the “Whitechapel fatberg,” this historic sewage clog was probably the largest one ever found and measured 250 meters (820 feet) in length, weighing 130 tons (260,000 pounds). In other words, it was longer than two football fields and weighed about as much as 11 double-decker buses, Ars Technica reported in September.
Now, a piece of that hardened blob of excrement and waste that Londoners have flushed down the drain, including condoms, diapers, and wet wipes glued together by fats and oils, is being live-streamed by the Museum of London as a prized artifact — a putrid, metaphorical memento of life in the 21st century.
“This thing is like a piece of 21st-century archaeology,” museum curator Andy Holbrook said in a statement, noting that the fatberg “kind of appeals to the child-like sense of things that are gross.”
According to Ars Technica, the museum convinced Thames Water to hand over the last remaining chunks of the Whitechapel fatberg after the London utility company spent nine grueling weeks dismantling the mammoth sewer clog. Museum curators walked away with two pieces of festering sewage, one about the size of the shoebox and the other a little smaller, while Thames Water plans to turn the rest of the fatberg into 100,000 liters (26,400 gallons) of biodiesel.
Originally displayed in the museum as part of a special “Fatberg!” exhibit from February 9 until July 1, the last remains of the fatberg have now been moved into storage. But the show is far from being over, as anyone who’s still obsessed with the Whitechapel sewage monstrosity can tune in on the museum’s website, and watch the FatCam live-stream (available below) to see what’s going on with the last surviving pieces of the fatberg.
“We always knew, I think, that it would have been a quirky story,” said Holbrook, who is the collection care manager of the museum’s Department of Conservation and Collection Care.
Since the “Fatberg!” exhibit was a resounding success, the museum decided to acquire the samples and make them part of its permanent collection.
“The highly toxic pieces of sewage will be stored in quarantine at the museum’s store, alongside artefacts from across London’s history. We’ve also created a bespoke case, fitted with a camera, to live-stream it at all times for the world to see,” the Museum of London announced on Tuesday.
And, believe it or not, the fetid samples have been through quite an exciting time, going through changes and displaying new features that have been the talk of the fatberg-enthusiast community.
Once a brown, fecal color, the fatberg pieces turned bone-like ivory and changed their smell from pungent, raw sewage to a “damp Victorian basement,” notes Ars Tehnica. But that’s not all that happened.
“Whilst on display the fatberg hatched flies, sweated and changed color,” stated museum officials. “Since going off display, the fatberg has started to grow an unusual and toxic mold, in the form of visible yellow pustules. Our collections care team has identified this as aspergillus.”
A chemical analysis of the sample revealed that the main ingredient in this fatberg recipe is palmitic acid, an unsaturated fat found in butter, palm oil, and olive oil, as well as in meat and dairy products. The theory is that the Whitechapel fatberg grew to its historic size due to a mixture of fat from cooking residue, flushed down the drain by a number of households. This substance saponified (turned to soap) on contact with calcium deposits, and glued itself onto the sewer walls, trapping all the other unsanitary ingredients into a “monstrous mass” — the largest fatberg to date.
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