A visit to the Paris Sewer Museum

Claire Duvallet
Underworlds
Published in
4 min readJul 8, 2016

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I recently got back from a family trip to France. We spent the first part of our trip seeing family, visiting my brother in Switzerland, and — of course — eating. Each time I go back to France, I am so amazed by how fresh, varied, and balanced the food there is, and this trip was no exception. We had a lot of incredible meals, but I’d say that my favorite ones were the ones that skipped the “meal” part and instead went straight from the “olives and dried sausage” appetizer course to the “cheese, yogurt, and fruit” dessert course. I can only imagine how my microbiome felt! :D

The yogurt aisle in a local grocery store — so many options wow!! French people’s microbiomes must be so healthy. :)

That said, if you ask my parents what I was most excited about this trip, I’m sure they’d tell you: visiting the Paris Sewer Museum. I was actually quite worried that we wouldn’t be able to go, since Paris has recently had some pretty bad floods. But the museum was open when we were there, and so we went!

Excited.

The first thing that struck me about the museum was the smell. The main exhibition runs along a real sewer line, and the floor is a metal grate so you can actually see the water flowing below the installation. Super cool, but really smelly! Actually I think it’s pretty funny: I can only imagine a bunch of wastewater engineers making a museum about sewage, of course they wouldn’t think twice about the smell! It’s a normal part of life for them, but for the general public it’s pretty striking.

The beginning of the museum exhibit, with a dredger suspended over a real sewer line. Visitors have to walk along the path on the left to get to the next part.

The second most surprising part was that I actually saw poop! When we sample for our experiments, we stay at street-level and so are never close enough to the sewage to make out any details. Also, I think that the water we collect is much more dilute and mixed than what I was seeing at the museum. I’m not entirely sure why, but all that to say that I’ve never seen actual poops in the sewage — this was my first time! Pretty funny, and suuuper gross.

I’m pretty sure at least some of those specks floating by were stool. What a surprise!

I was a bit disappointed with the overall message of the museum. There wasn’t really one, which was unexpected. Every time I’ve visited Boston’s treatment plant or talked to someone who works in wastewater, I’ve left the encounter with additional appreciation for sanitation. The more I learn about sewer systems, the more grateful I am for these systems which are so crucial to society’s functioning and yet are never really thought or talked about by the general public. I was hoping this museum would convey the sort of respect for our sewer systems that I’ve gained throughout our work — but I didn’t really feel that from any of the exhibits. It’s a bummer, really. At the very least they could’ve thrown something in there about not flushing “flushable” wipes or dumping grease down the drain…

The only part of the exhibit that adequately conveyed the importance and impressiveness of sewer systems!

That said, it was still really awesome. I was super pumped to get up close and personal with the Paris sewers — apart from seeing the poop, I really enjoyed looking into the old sewer lines and feeling like I was an engineer exploring the real sewers. I’m sure it goes without saying that I would *love* to go down into the Cambridge sewers just to see! We all have our weird dreams, I guess — some are just crappier than others. ;)

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Claire Duvallet
Underworlds

PhD student @MITdeptofBE @ejalm lab. | Underworlds Smart Sewers Team | Intersection of data, (global) health, under-served and under-represented communities.