A most unusual exhibition is taking place underneath the fountains at Somerset House. You've probably seen the ornamental gushers, maybe even run through them trying not to get wet. But you may not have been down below, to the Deadhouse beneath the paving slabs, where the run-off from the fountains drips though. And if you get down there by Sunday you can visit a highly appropriate subterranean collection, the Museum of Water.
As one of the most plentiful substances on the planet, we don't normally give water a second thought. But curator Amy Sharrocks is encouraging punters to see water differently, with a display of over 400 samples with an added dimension. She's asked anyone and everyone to donate a container of water that means something to them, perhaps because of where it came from, perhaps because of an emotion stirred. Each is categorised and labelled, ideally with an audio description from its donor. And the entire collection is on display for three weeks only, on makeshift shelves in a gloomy undercroft.
You reach the Deadhouse via the Embankment entrance at Somerset House. I suspect many visitors never realise this exists, spending their time in the main courtyard or on the riverside terrace without ever discovering the lift or staircase down. There follows a wander through the Lightwells, a deep narrow passageway around the perimeter of the fountain court. This looks like characters from a 17th century costume drama might pop out at any minute, apart from the security cameras, and the umbrellas that Amy's stashed in an alcove, and a small hole into a temporary tank full of murky brown Thames water.
The Museum of Water is dark within, so best acclimatise your eyes. Some minor stage-setting lurks to each side, but rest assured the buckets catching drips from the ceiling are real. The first proper exhibit is in the white chiller cabinet at the end of the corridor, inside which is a refrigerated glass cylinder. This is a slice of the Antarctic ice sheet, more specifically from the Dyer Plateau, collected in 1989 but originally laid down 200 years ago. Or at least it might once have been that, but I understand there's been a single unfortunate power supply interruption during the exhibition's tenure, so those feathery crystals may no longer be the genuine article.
The main body of the collection appears on a series of stacked shelves ahead in an assemblage of motley containers. On each are displayed bottles, jars, tubs and other containers filled or part-filled with water, some samples clear, others rather less so. Each has a handwritten label describing the contents, ranging from the practical to the prosaic. Pond water, water from a lost river, leftovers from the cat's bowl, swirly toothpaste spit, there's anything and everything. Several people appear to have raided their bird bath, and a lot have donated holy water from shrines across the world, and yes that darker orange stuff is quite possibly urine.
Explore the shelves, which are very loosely categorised, and several more personal tales are told. There's someone's breath from a walk across London, there's water from a temporary stand-pipe, there's water from a vase of Mothers' Day flowers, and there's "rainwater from the day we said goodbye to my brother". One particularly touching story comes from a lady whose doctor advised her never to swim again, so she went for one last swim across the bay and collected her bottleful from halfway, the point of no return. But that story's too long to fit on the label, you'll have to get one of the custodians to tell you.
There's always somebody on hand to collect fresh exhibits off visiting members of the public, and on a weekday that may be Amy herself. They'll get you to write a brief description, and also hopefully entice you into their recording booth to tell all into a microphone. If you've not brought something there's a separate room entitled "The Water We Would Have Brought" where you can make textual amends. I have an intriguing water sample from the 1980s I'd like to have left, only it is perhaps a bit dangerous for public display, and anyway I just had a dig through my spare room and I can't currently locate it.
Amy's collecting precious water over a two year period, and we're just over halfway through, so there may still be a chance to find her at some later Donation Day to hand yours in. But Somerset House is apparently the only place you'll ever see the whole lot together in one place, because after this week the Museum goes on intermittent tour in smaller chunks. Sorry to have left it so late before mentioningit, but you do still have time.
"I am aware that the Museum is a Sisyphan attempt to hold onto something that is going, a hoarding of objects and liquid in a century already filled with a crush of objects. The shape of the bottles on a shelf figures forth a graph of our water experience, encapsulated in bottles, mapping our feeling for water. I make no attempt to conserve the water. And relatively soon the collection will disappear (5 years, 10?), and become a collection of bottles, of ways we used to use water, of what it used to offer us." (Amy Sharrocks)