But Niess says more.
“I explained to them that this might be the best way to explore the diversity of humans, because the relationship between humans and their bodies – and their shit – varies across time and cultures. I said to the museum, this is the best subject on society — and a story on humanity.
She is right, of course.
Everyone poops, but how they do it, where it goes, and how they think about it says a lot about how they experience the world. Trash can teach us about history, anthropology, psychology and public health.
We get that last part in Boston, don’t we? We are mapping our well-being, as it relates to COVID, by tracking sewage. The Deer Island processing plant uses our poo to help us predict if we’re going to have to dodge a variant spike.
Once Niess persuaded his museum that it was a subject worthy of exploration, the curatorial team worked with scientists to examine all aspects of poo and how it affects our lives. The result is “Oh Shit! exhibition (translation: “Oh Sh*t!”), which opened in June 2021 and will run until March 26, 2023. The large multi-room exhibition – curated with art, games, history, relics and turd models – approaches the subject of No. 2 with great humor, intelligence and curiosity.
Vincent Giguere, whose background is in art history, said the museum brought in a team of scientists to make sure they got it right. Experts who participated included Catherine Bourgault, a sanitation advisor at the Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technologies, and Corinne Maurice, a McGill University researcher specializing in microbiota and viruses.
“We really wanted visitors and people who visit the exhibition to say, ‘OK, that’s the part where we laugh, but the other part, it’s very serious,'” Giguère said.
I visited the Musée de la civilization over Labor Day weekend, specifically choosing Quebec City as my destination rather than Montreal because I had read about the “Ô Merde! ” display. Long before COVID and the sewage issue, I thought a lot about poo. Why? I come from a family with gastrointestinal issues, and because both of my parents had colon/colorectal cancer, I have to think of my own poo as a warning system for my own well-being.
Plus, I write The Globe’s love advice column, and let me tell you, poo is a part of that too. So many people ask me private questions about how to handle farting on a romantic first sleepover. The social implications of how to deal with poop come back to me all the time.
Understand, this exhibit was built for someone like me. It felt like my mecca for poo.
But I swear you’ll love this exhibit even if you’re not a fan of poo.
It includes biology lessons. One room includes a row of toilets with different poop designs where you can find out what your own poop says about your health and diet. I’ve heard people say, “I’m a Type 4!” I’m a Type 7! It’s like a Myers-Briggs for defecation. (I learned from poo that looked like mine that I really should drink more water.) For history buffs, there are old chamber pots, some quite regal.
Those interested in psychology and gender studies can explore why some of us are afraid to poop in public places. Are women more likely to be ashamed of poop? Not shocking, they are!
Ironically, even though I’m a woman comfortable talking about poo (clearly), I couldn’t go during my trip! I have travel problems during the holidays, I-can’t-go-to-the-toilet. The museum also has information about this. But more on poo while traveling in another story.
The exhibition design alone is worth the trip. One room is made to look like a public bathroom with cubicles. As you enter each stall, you will find tiny displays. One is a haunting look at where people have to poop outside and how the lack of waste management affects their quality of life. Another is a playful story of the poo emoji. Yet another is a replica of historic latrines in France.
Neiss said the exhibit was delayed due to COVID-19. Some special toilets – including Cranfield University’s nano-membrane toilets – were harder to ship to the museum due to pandemic rules. But the Cranfield is there now, and a highlight of the display. It was the coolest toilet I’ve ever seen, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge”. They don’t require traditional plumbing and could help the world figure out how to manage waste without hurting the planet.
The delay of COVID – the opening of the exhibition in 2021 – has also made the subject of poo much more topical. Not only is sewage part of the pandemic conversation, but we’re also much more in tune with how we prioritize our experiences in the bathroom. A photograph from the museum is an image of people stocking up on items like toilet paper at the start of the pandemic.
Giguère said his own father didn’t want to visit the exhibit because he was thinking about something called “Ô Merde!” would be stupid and rude, but he went to support his son. Once there, he changed his mind.
“He enjoyed it. He told me, it’s smarter than I thought. … It’s like a crescendo, so you walk into the exhibit and it’s a lot of fun. You see the toilets, you see shit everywhere. And the more you enter, the more information you see about diseases and social issues. I think it’s in those parts that they are affected, and that was our goal.
Neiss said a shocking part for local visitors is when they learn not far from beautiful, clean Quebec City, poop is dumped directly into the St. Lawrence River. She said the museum tracks visitors to see if what they learned has changed the way they live.
“Did they add a bidet? Do they use washable paper? Do they compost? … Our museum’s DNA… is a museum for a better world, and so it suits it. It’s the best fit. We want to inspire people to take action. It’s a call to action.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at [email protected]