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Spotlight: Conserving a monster

Conservation usually makes headlines in curious ways - like when confused taxidermy with conservation, or when a 2000 year old coffin was discovered in use as a flowerpot. Yet perhaps none were as spectacular as the attempt to conserve a piece of the Whitechapel “Fatberg” - a 250 metre long, 130 tonne mass of oil and congealed grease interwoven with wet wipes and other sanitary products.

It was Icon member Sharon Robinson-Calver, Head of Conservation and Collection Care at the Museum of London, who spearheaded the initiative and who would go on to hit global airways as she supervised the highly anticipated display of the mess.

For 27 years Sharon has worked as a conservator across the sector, in both private contexts and national and international museums, and on projects such as the conservation of the Albert Memorial or Catherine Cookson’s hair.

When asked if the Fatberg was the most newsworthy thing she’s touched on in her career, Sharon considers this for a moment before carefully saying: “It’s certainly the one that received the most media attention.”

In September 2017, the “monster of our own making” - as she puts it - was found under Whitechapel, East London. A hulking mass of sanitary products, needles and other garbage cemented into solidified cooking fat, measuring at 250 meters and weighting about 130 tonnes. To put that in perspective: that is longer than London’s Tower Bridge and about as heavy as two Airbuses or nineteen African elephants.

We were working with something highly toxic that was out of our usual skill sets.”

Sharon and her team knew that this, the biggest Fatberg ever found, would be the source of much curiosity and morbid fascination, so it didn’t come as a surprise when it hit the headlines right away. The news went viral as the Museum of London announced that they would be adding it to their collection - and conserving a piece of it to go on display.

“We were reasonably sure that there was going to be a lot of press interest,’ says Sharon, ‘but having said that I think that the attention was quite extraordinary - especially on the press preview day.” From the Smithsonian Magazine to Australian News, the story made its way around the globe in the hands of more than 60 news crews,  appearing on more than 300 news outlets in 115 countries. With her trademark modesty, Sharon admits this was quite “surprising”.


Sharon is interviewed by the BBC.

While attention continued to grow, the team considered the implications of conserving this unique object - the first of its kind to be exhibited.

“Nobody has ever tried to preserve a fatberg before and nobody has put one on display. Normally they’re hacked up and destroyed (or in this case, turned into 10 tonnes of biofuel powering London buses), but this time we wanted to use a piece of it to tell a story: of how it got there, how we got it and how we displayed it - we put conservation at the heart of the story.”

Challenges were apparent from the onset, starting with the fact that the materials and composition were unlike anything that had ever been seen or handled before. Sharon says, “We were working with something highly toxic that was out of our usual skill sets.”

It was the toxicity that kept the team small. With Sharon at its core, rounding out the group were just two other staff conservators: Andy Holbrook ACR (Collection Care Manager) and Helen Ganiaris ACR (Conservation Manager). The group worked alongside Thames Water, who had discovered, assessed and collected the Fatberg in the first place, to determine the way forward.

Their research took them to the academic papers and articles written by Fatberg scientists, who would then point them in the direction of one of the UK’s experts in this area, Dr Raffaella Villa. With Dr Villa on board, her team at Cranfield University worked to conduct a scientific analysis that would enhance the understanding and mitigate the risks of exposing the Fatberg to staff and visitors.

The piece had its own ecosystem. In a way we treated it as an experiment, letting it evolve in its environment”

Further analysis into the best ways to conserve something as singular as the Fatberg also led them to observe other organic contemporary art pieces, such as Marc Quinn’s “Self” (a cast of his head made out of his own blood). However, none of the processes used to conserve these objects seemed to fit the bill for the Fatberg. After much deliberation, it was decided that air-drying the sample within was the safest route possible. Andy designed a three box biohazard container to prevent accidental contact whilst the process took place.

“We spent three months slowly off gassing and drying the fatberg, but even now it still contains moisture within the structure and is gently sweating in its case,” Sharon points out.

Once ready, the museum’s technician team devised a ‘case within a case’ display system so the sample could be handled and transported safely. Although contained, the Fatberg piece was still an unpredictable piece, prone to producing surprises such as a freshly hatched swarm of flies.

“The piece had its own ecosystem. In a way we treated it as an experiment, letting it evolve in its environment,” she explains, further adding that a month and some after its initial exhibition, the piece has darkened slightly and the flies have died: “it has reached equilibrium within its display environment.”

The conservation of the Fatberg has turned out to be an ongoing process, as the team is constantly made to consider how to tackle new changes, such as the trapped moisture seeping out and steaming the container.

As conservators we can really be the enablers. In our case, we didn’t say “no” and “can’t do this”. We said we’d find a way and we’d do it."

Though they could have mopped it out, Sharon explains why they decided not to “we could have installed some silica gel to dry the condensation out and stabilised the piece, but visitors were very excited about the changes because they got a sense of how this is a living thing, which kind of added to the drama, so we decided that we would run with that. It added to the story that this is an unusual material and object.”

Few people could have predicted that a lump of fat found in a sewer could capture the public’s imagination in this way. And yet it is because of the effort behind conserving this unlikely object that - on Twitter alone - the Fatberg has seen more than 2 billion mentions so far.

When asked about what this means for the conservation profession, Sharon mulls over the fact that it has definitely shone a light on the creative and out-of-the-box thinking required to be a conservator: “we can really be the enablers. In our case, we didn’t say “no” and “can’t do this”. We said we’d find a way and we’d do it. We had to find a way to work through this difficult landscape of risks to bring this to display. It certainly has thrown the spotlight on a very different approach to conservation and new materials.”

It’s perhaps safe to say that it’s thanks to conservation that the limelight was also turned to the public to answer a poignant question: what now?

“People don’t realise the impact of the way they dispose of waste. That’s one of the issues and that’s one of the positive outcomes of the exhibitions and the campaign Thames Water have been running, to make people more aware of the impact of their actions,” Sharon says.

The Fatberg currently sits within a section of the museum dedicated to London’s history dedicated to the sewage system built in the aftermath of the Great Stink of 1858. Then, like now, it was a common habit to throw things into the river and cesspits. But whereas at the time London was home to a million people, nowadays the same infrastructure has to cope with nearly ten times that population.

So what lessons does Sharon hope the British public will draw from this exhibition?

“It puts the spotlight on something unseen and with little awareness around it – changing habits to take pressure off the sewage system and help to ease the risk of flooding caused by these huge blockages.”


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Images: (c) Museum of London & (c) BBC News


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