Next to the Pont d’Alma, across the Seine from the site of Princess Diana’s death, is the entrance to a kind of museum that you’d be unlikely to find in the States. It is the entrance to Les Égouts de Paris, an underground museum documenting the history of the sewer system of Paris. Housed within the sewers system itself, Les Égouts is not for the faint of heart; the stench of raw sewage running under your feet is not the most attractive feature. I am not going to argue that city planning is an art, for I do not believe it is. Instead, I am going to expand on the art of tourism and how le Maîrie de Paris created something from nothing.
First of all, the museum itself was a disappointment. For the most part, it was a catwalk over an open river of wastewater with a series of poster boards hanging from the ceilings. The information given was mostly uninteresting and really repetitive. There were diagrams of the water cycle and mannequins dressed as sewer workers. There was a series of about twenty poster boards documenting the development of the Paris sewer system from the Roman era to the present, accompanied by photographs, miniaturized sewage equipment and artifacts from previous eras of sanitation. These, followed by a gift shop at the end, constituted the entirety of the museum.
In this situation, I take a note from one of Mark's iTunes playlists and ask myself, "What is it trading on?" A sewer museum is nowhere as iconic as the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay, just down the Seine, but it still attracts crowds of tourists (and locals) every day. It doesn't have any priceless paintings or artifacts, nor a pleasant odor. What it does have is novelty. How many times are you going to visit a sewer system rooted in antiquity? I would guess that for most people, the answer is zero. But if you happen to be in Paris, you can take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for just a few Euros.
One of the most surprising things about Les Égouts is the gift shop placed in the exit of the museum. It suddenly becomes apparent that the city of Paris is preying on you. Paris is a tourist attraction, and the Maîrie takes full advantage of that in the creation of tourist traps such as Les Égouts. They sell merchandise only vaguely relating to the sewer system--plush rat dolls, water carafes with the Eiffel Tower on them, post cards of photos of the sewer system, Les Miserables (because Jean Valjean wandered through the sewers of Paris), rat keychains--useless junk that commemorates a visit to a novel idea. I suppose that people wouldn't want to take home sewage either, but it just goes to show that there's no real attraction to the sewers.
There's a reason that most cities don't have sewer museums, which is because they aren't interesting. Despite the moderately un-boring history of the Parisian sanitation system, there simply isn't enough substance to merit an entire museum.