QUEBEC CITY — A shitshow is literally taking place at the Musée de la Civilisation. Bad jokes aside, there is actually more to shit than meets the eye. Bottom line: excrement — and its mismanagement — are major drivers of global inequality. Not talking about shit openly is actually getting in the way of social justice. Oh Shit! is a golden opportunity to “go there” and to educate ourselves. It was worth the trip to Quebec City — the earliest known French settlement in North America and the only fortified city north of Mexico whose walls still exist.
Oh Shit! retraces the historical arc of feces from ancient Rome to the sewage challenges and potential innovations of the 21st century. The first room is a menagerie of chamber pots and antique toilets. The second section presents a series of seven toilets with the seven stool types through which doctors gauge diet and bowel function. It’s more science than art museum. The third section is like a vast public bathroom with several oversized partitioned stalls. Each stall features a mini-exhibition recounting different episodes in the history of shit — whose material history is often repressed. The fourth area presents objects and wall texts that reveal how excrement’s mismanagement exacerbates global inequality and how rethinking poo could narrow the gap between rich and poor and mitigate climate change. No shit.
One of the most dynamic installations is a life-sized reconstruction of a public latrine from Roman Gaul (in modern-day Nice, France). It demonstrates the degree to which modernity’s shame-based relationship with shit is arbitrary. The Romans built large public latrines where colleagues would discuss business and friends would chat — literally and figuratively “shooting the shit.” A shared sponge on the end of the stick, rinsed in aqueduct water between uses, may not be toilet paper, but it was state of the art in antiquity. The accumulated excrement was cherished by famers as fertilizer to improve the local harvest. Throughout the Roman Empire, heading to the public latrine was understood as a civic duty to improve the community’s agricultural yield.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the circular logic of public latrines, and its benefits, never came back. As cities grew in medieval Europe, roads became obstacle courses from emptied chamber pots. Such “shitstorms” are portrayed in a reproduction of an anonymous Dutch illustration in the exhibition, “The Emptying of Chamber Pots” (1554), which is derived from Joos de Damhouder‘s legal manual, Praxis rerum criminalium. By the Renaissance, inventors began to ponder a better solution than smelling crap on the way to the market. The first flush toilet was invented and installed in the 1580s by the amateur British poet and courtier Sir John Harrington. Although Queen Elizabeth I tried out the prototype in 1592, Harrington’s invention did not take off. It would take two centuries for flush toilets to become economically viable, at least for the upper class. In 1775, the British entrepreneur Alexander Cummings patented a “flushing water closet” that became a bourgeois sensation.
Over the course of the 19th century, cholera outbreaks forced London’s leaders to build sewers in the city at an enormous expense — somewhere between £240 million and £1 billion in today’s money. Witnessing London’s success, other major cities in Europe and North America soon laid sewers and installed flushing toilets, compelled to bear the astronomical costs due to the risk of communicable diseases. However, sewers were unfortunately not laid in overseas territories and colonies. The racist legacy of this colonial inequality persists today. According to a 2020 United Nations white paper, nearly 750 million people, encompassing 69 percent of Africa’s population, still do not have access to basic sanitation services. This is the root cause of numerous public health challenges on the continent.
The challenge of Oh Shit! is to picture the lived experience behind these statistics. A partition in the show vividly recreates the unsanitary conditions under which far too many people in the world still defecate. The floor is covered with a mixture of artificial mud and fake poo amid a bustling street scene. Getting grossed out is the point. The museum estimates that today 673 million people will be forced to defecate outside. Two billion people, predominantly in the developing world, do not enjoy the basic human right of a clean toilet. These conditions expose individuals to numerous health risks.
Additionally, one billion women will risk rape and sexual violence today when they defecate out in the open or are forced to take a long journey to an inadequate facility. Queer and trans people in the developing world are also targets, but these statistics are not tracked and disseminated. Toilet access is one of the most definitive gaps between wealth and poverty, health and illness, safety and rape or other forms of violence.
The next section of Oh Shit! features the new nanomembrane toilet, which is an effort to fix this problem. Designed for countries that lack sewer infrastructure, it attempts to harness recent scientific advances to affordably and sanitarily dispose of urine and feces. This invention uses nanomembranes to filter the toxic parts out of urine, transforming it into water that can be employed for watering plants or cleaning. A small furnace incinerates feces, generating enough electricity to charge a mobile phone. As often happens when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation throws money at a problem, the global south is “blessed” with a fancy new gizmo that presents scalability and maintenance challenges. It might be effective in urban areas, but it is not the game changer it promises to be on paper. It is ineffective in rural areas and war zones that are hard for maintenance technicians to reach, which is where the need is most acute. Privilege is literally the capacity to adequately deal with your shit, your family’s shit, and your neighbor’s shit.
But there is hope — your shit could be powering your iPhone. Unlocking the power of our poop as bio-fuel presents a major opportunity to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and the war-mongering nations that sell it. In addition to displaying an elaborate machine that can turn shit into usable fuel, visitors can learn about a stove in India that cooks food with bio-gas, as well as a bus in Brighton, England, that runs on bio-fuel. In this way, we are coming full circle to ancient Rome. Your dung actually holds electricity value for the community, and scientists are just beginning to find ways to unleash this power. Redefining our society’s relationship with shit could advance racial, economic, sexual, and energy justice in the years ahead. But to get there, we need to be willing to deal with our shit in new ways.
Oh Shit! continues at the Musée de la Civilisation (85 Rue Dalhousie, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada) through March 26. The exhibition was organized by the Musée de la Civilisation with a scientific committee of Catherine Bourgault, François-Joseph Lapointe, Corinne Maurice, Alain Veilleux, and Céline Vaneeckhaute.
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Thanks, great story. And for anyone interested in the subject: I accidentally happened on a great related exhibit. I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago and went into a museum-looking building which happened to house the department of sanitation and they had a massive exhibit related to toilets–their design, all the hardware, etc.
It was beautifully displayed and so interesting. 🙂
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