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London’s fishy fireball and festering fatberg

by Alex Scott
July 7, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 28


Fishy fireball

Photo of a fish with sequins in a plastic bag.
Credit: Sang-tae Kim
Explosive art: Lee Bul's "Majestic Splendor" caused a fishy fireball.

Curators of two London museums are thinking twice about showing off rotten exhibits after one exploded and another started sweating and hatching flies.

The Hayward Gallery’s decision to exhibit “Majestic Splendor,” an art installation by Korean artist Lee Bul featuring rotting fish in sealed, clear plastic bags, backfired dramatically a month ago when the installation exploded into a fishy fireball. The gallery sustained some fire damage, and a security guard required treatment for smoke inhalation.

“Majestic Splendor” comprises dozens of bags containing sequin-adorned rotting fish, which Bul says represents her perception of the ephemeral nature of beauty for highly ornamented women. The challenge with putting such an exhibit together is that a stench of rotting fish can emanate from the bags.

Bul’s solution to avoid causing a stink was to load the bags with potassium permanganate, a workhorse in the world of odor reduction, which reacts with stinky volatile organic compounds to form less smelly—or even odorless—compounds.

But here’s the problem: Some of the smelly compounds emitted by rotting fish are amines—compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen—that under certain conditions can combine with potassium permanganate to spark an explosion.

This is not the only possible initial cause of the fire. One scientifically literate observer believes the fishy fiasco may have started as a result of a pressure buildup in the bags by gases, including methane. Such a buildup could have caused the bags to explode in the same way whales can blow up on a beach.

Whatever the cause, it’s a fishy tale that the Hayward Gallery has no plans to repeat. After the fire, the gallery pulled Bul’s “Majestic Splendor” exhibition.


A photo of a fatberg.
Credit: Museum of London
Sweating it: Museum of London's fatberg is changing color and growing mold.

Festering fatberg

While the Hayward Gallery’s festering fish failure ended with a bang, the Museum of London’s problem is unfolding more slowly: One of its star exhibits, a fragment of the city’s infamous monster fatberg made up of human feces, fat, and other nasties from the sewers of east London, is starting to sweat.

This fragment of the 130-metric-ton “Whitechapel Monster,” so named because it was found blocking a sewer under London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, is not only sweating in the summer warmth but is changing color, growing mold, and hatching flies. Although the fragment is composed of a variety of substances, the museum’s curators think much of it is a soaplike material formed by free radicals from waste fat reacting with grit and the lining of the old Victorian sewers in a process called saponification.

Although the monster fragment is safely contained within a glass exhibition box, where it has been on display since February, its decline means that its future is now uncertain.


Despite the fatberg’s declining state, the museum is keen to keep it on display because it has become a major attraction and a tool for educating visitors on waste disposal and how Londoners live. “It’s important that we display things that reflect the highs and lows of living in the city, today as well as in the past,” Vyki Sparkes, curator of social and working history for the museum, says.

Replacing the fetid fatberg with another fragment of its momma isn’t possible, as the rest of the colossal fatberg has since been converted into biofuel. But even if the museum’s fatberg fragment sweats into oblivion, all may not be lost. “Fatbergs are lurking, congealing, and growing fast under our feet, and as soon as we clear one, another is growing somewhere else in our sewer network,” says a spokesperson for London wastewater treatment firm Thames Water.

Alex Scott wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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