“Excuse me, can I have a slice of your Fatberg?” The Weird and Wonderful things that make a Museum.

I can still vividly remember the early hours trawling of the internet that was caused by a combination of insomnia and an unusual BBC News Article. The headline is as follows “Monster Fatberg found blocking east London sewer.” and I’ll be honest dear reader, the minute I opened the article I should have turned back. I didn’t, and it got pretty vile from that point onward. I best begin with the definition of what a Fatberg actually is (for the sake of clarity and context) –

“A fatberg is a congealed lump of fat, sanitary napkins, wet wipes, condoms, nappies and similar items found in sewer systems, which do not break down like toilet paper. “

So there you have it, it’s only taken a few weeks of blogging here for me to reach the point that I am talking about about the above revolting topics. The question is, why? Why is someone who seeks to champion heritage, talking about such a revolting subject? Well it all comes from a follow up article, upon the eventual defeat of the Fatburg of the East End. I will never ever forget, i’m sure, reading the following headline. “Monster fatberg to go on display in museum.” I don’t think my heart has jumped at such a disgusting prospect before, and perhaps never again will it reach such heady heights. I honestly think this is absolutely and utterly wonderful.

The Museum of London has announced that a slice of the Fatberg is going to be displayed at the Museum for people to consider and inspect, the focus of the exhibition will be how modern life and archaic infrastructures created by our forebears are meeting and coping with each other, or not as the case may be. The very idea that someone has had the forethought to take this disgusting entity and utilise it in a Heritage setting is utterly remarkable. I have often argued amongst friends and colleagues that the more revolting aspects of one’s heritage are the easiest route for people to access it.

English Heritage posted a tweet about the “Top 10 Toilets in History” – Why is that important? Why should English Heritage be talking about toilets? I did read someone asking “Is this what I pay my membership for?” to which I wanted to respond – Yes! You want to preserve our shared heritage, you want to see the continued maintenance of these fine buildings, sites and items – That’s great but, to quote the marvellous Freeman Tilden –

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

If we simply preserve the sites etc without finding that common ground (NB – Different common ground!) we are failing. A large stately home, full of portraits and Georgian decor are very nice to look at, but what connection do they have to the average home? All homes have a toilet however, where not all have a vaulted ceiling or a library stuffed with leather bound books. The toilet is a universally understood concept and item, be it the European porcelain bowl or the variations further afield, we all… poo! So when it comes to bringing the story of Lord A Nnoymous of Somewhere-upon-Such back to life for a visitor, remember that despite his social class, despite his breeding and his diet, his vaulted ceilings, he also had to use the lavatory!

Does the idea of someone using the toilet disturb you? Well how about the food they ate? Perhaps the idea of eating is the one that will bring you round to interacting with the interpretation? I know from a recent event at my work place that food has a galvanising impact on engagement. If not food, then what aspect of your life, your hobby, your family would you most like to engage with?

I know that the lavatory for some is a deeply personal thing and for some people, it is not a topic for discussion. That is perfectly fine, but we must accept that there are subjects we would traditionally believe have no place in a serious museum, that are now the perfect launching point for further discussion and conversation about our shared heritage.

So from a Magpie, to the Museum of London – Thank you! Thank you for taking in a fatberg and using it to open the way for consideration of the subterranean London.

Be brave, for without bravery we will never challenge that which went before.

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