“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.

“Cry Bloody Murder” or Our fascination with death, darkness and disturbing things.

When did we become fascinated with death? It’s a very broad question and i’ll be very clear here and now, I am not trying to answer it. I just had that question in my mind during researching this post and I felt compelled to put it at the very front of this narrative. Death has, in my knowledge and experience, always fascinated us. Either as a stalking terror, a medical curiosity or indeed as a malleable material for fictional frivolity and such titivating activities. It has become, in many ways now, an industry. Not Undertakers or Coffin Makers, no that is the inevitable industry of death and it’s associated rituals. No this is an industry associated with Heritage, and within that you potentially find a two fold unpleasant taste in the collective mouth. Financial gain from “Selling Heritage” and equally making money from death.

I was in the process of discussing a potential run of “Haunted Tours” of a property not far from my home base, when I accidentally touched a nerve. I’ll never ever forget the sudden change in the face of a fairly placid and kind man. His eyes darkened and within minutes the enthusiasm for my project was replaced by opposition and hurt. I had asked a question and it was one with answers far too close to the surface. I had asked the client if anything particularly gory or horrid had happened within the building and apparently something had. Something that, unlike The Ripper, H H Holmes and the such, was not a dim and distant memory or story. I realised then that I had accidentally walked into something that was best left, out of respect, untouched. It took a younger me, a naive me, a moment to retract and smooth the surface back down and walk away, it’s taken a slightly older, more world wise me to consider what happened and what we must learn from it. Some of the dead, are not buried deeply, either in soil or time.

It’s the “Industry of Blood” as it were, to which I turn my previously mentioned slightly older eye. Jack the Ripper, ghoulish spectre of late 19th Century Whitechapel and much further beyond, is probably the best example of an enduring case of the “Industry of Blood” – Is it his mysterious and unsolved identity that keeps people interested? Or is it the juxtaposition he enjoys, with his barbaric actions, in relation to a rather rose tinted view of the Victorian age? It is, admittedly both and more. (As for “The Good Old Days” I cannot recommend enough the book “The Good Old Days – Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London” by Gilda O’Neill) With accepted images of the prim and proper, the class divide being more about clothing and cheek between society ladies and naughty impish chimney sweeps. Lets not forget Margaret Thatcher and he call to return to Victorian Values! With that in mind, we find a sense of shock and horror in the acts of a mysterious figure who pop culture has dressed in top hat, frock coat and cloak. How could this have happened? How could it have gone unnoticed and unstopped? How could someone do such things to women? We do so love having our expectations challenged and our sensibilities taunted.

A friend of the Author, yes he has one, lives and works in London. Upon questioning her concerning the plethora of Ripper Tours, and if she had embarked on one, she responded that she had indeed done several. Upon asking why, the answer was “Because I love Jack the Ripper’s story and I like being scared – there is just something about about walking down the same streets he did, gives me chills” (With thanks to Jessica Harris Edwards – Who blogs at herdarkmajesty.wordpress.com) This single quote probably best illustrates why I’m writing this piece. “Walking down the same streets he did” – It is in that which we find tangible history. Jessica nor I are, as far as I know, related to any of Jack’s victims, nor to Him (That is a well educated guess but who knows….) yet we feel a deep link to such subjects and people, it is our shared heritage. Be it from an academic viewpoint, considering the sociological context in which this could happen, the changes in viewpoint towards “working women” and their plight, or as Jessica says “the mystery” – The fact that an oft maligned school of research, called “Ripperologists”, has grown around him and his evil actions, surely proves his lasting influence on the subconscious. Don’t worry, I’m not going to now claim I know who he was. I am going to use him a little more though, with statistics, to prove my theory.

Jack the Ripper Tours, The Original Terror Tour, which was established in 1982, promises visits to more murder sites, expert guides and all of this 7 nights a week, for the exceptionally good sum of £10, is one of many such tours. To break this down; there is enough interest in such a subject that they feel comfortable running their tour 7 nights a week, (The Author only runs his Ghost Tour once a week!) and their digital footprint is of excellent quality – you can’t get along for 35 years without a constant stream of interest, because interest translates to income. Having never been on one of these tours, it isn’t fair for the Author to offer a review and equally one wouldn’t on here, it’s just not cricket. TripAdvisor etc are the homes of, one would hope, honest reviews. I am simply using their longevity as an example of the hunger for such subjects.

Jack the Ripper, it is easy to imagine with his mystery and influence on pop-culture, is a fairly acceptable and removed from “living memory” perhaps making the subject slightly more acceptable to the palette. However, when is too soon? I mentioned earlier that something was touched upon in a conversation, something cemented in living memory, which caused a change in the conversation and the relationship between myself and a client. I won’t go into details but less than two decades had apparently passed between my conversation and the incident. One would guess, in a small town, where perhaps family connected and indeed friends, may still live, that it will be many years before it becomes something of note for a tour guide. After all, thankfully, we don’t have tours associated with Fred and Rose West or indeed the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. We still have a period of respect, a period of understanding, perhaps connected with the idea of living memory. A century from now? I don’t know. We are fascinated with morbid and shocking things, but we don’t tend to cope if the air still smells of the sorrow.

What can we learn about Heritage and our engagement with it from the above ideas though? Well beyond the Ripper Tours, through Old Whitechapel, we have museums and attractions which focus either in part, or entirely on unpleasant subjects including torture, villainy and repulsive ideas and actions. Perhaps it is Moyse’s Hall, mentioned in an earlier post, with their Gibbet cage and Human Leather bound book, or it’s the London Dungeons, one of London’s Must See Attractions according to their marketing, filled with rooms dedicated to the horrors experienced throughout history. With a courteous mention to Madame Tussauds and the wax figures of villains of yore, it becomes apparent that our fascination with those who reveal the hidden horrors of humanity, their limits which don’t match our own, will forever interest us. With all things, we can take this initial contact with an interested party and move it on to a further interest – Be it Jack leading us into the streets of London, where in which we find those long lost relatives and bigger ideas and issues associated with the Victorian Age, or perhaps information about our homes, our towns and villages, where we grew or where we moved to. Perhaps some good can come from the horrors of years gone by, perhaps they didn’t die in vain.