The Museum of the Sewers is one of the few places in Paris that was not closed down by the coronavirus pandemic — but only because it was already closed for other reasons.
This museum, which is in fact down in the sewers at the south end of Alma Bridge, was established in 1889 and closed for renovation 129 years later, in 2018. Reopening is scheduled for October 1, 2020, but of course that might be postponed like many other things in this pandemic year.
Access up to now has been through this inconspicuous kiosk on the river bank opposite number 93 quai d’Orsay. From here you had to climb down 42 steep steps on a narrow metal staircase, so the museum was definitely not wheelchair accessible. This is something they have promised to change during the two years of renovation work.
In earlier years this was advertised as “the world’s smelliest museum”, but when I went in February 2014 the smells were not particularly strong.
Before visiting this museum I assumed that I would have to go back to my hotel afterwards and change clothes, but this turned out to be unnecessary. They do suggest that you avoid contact with the waste water, and of course you should not eat anything while you are in the sewers. And you should wash your hands when you leave, which was no problem because there were public toilets at the exit.
Huge dredges (left photo) are used for cleaning the larger tunnels. Some of the side tunnels are too small for people to walk through, so they are cleaned by special wagons pulled by chains (right photo).
This narrow stone staircase, which is not open to the public, leads up to the street called Rue Cognacq-Jay. The street was named after Ernest Cognacq and his wife, Louise Jay, the founders of the old Samaritaine department store and the Cognacq-Jay Museum. A nephew of theirs, Gabriel Cognacq, inherited some of their money and made a large donation to the Bourdelle Museum in the Montparnasse district of Paris.
In March 1855 the civil engineer Eugène Belgrand was appointed the Director of Water and Sewers of Paris, a post he held until 1869. While his boss Baron Haussmann was busy rearranging the surface of Paris, Belgrand was doing the same down below.
In the 1850s and 60s, Belgrand greatly enlarged and extended the Paris sewer system and also constructed a system of aqueducts to bring large amounts of fresh water to the city.
This tunnel, known as the Galerie Belgrand, provides an overview of the history of the Paris sewer system, starting with the building of the first vaulted sewer in 1370 and going up to the present day. The text panel in the center of the photo shows the development of the sewers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “from the Renaissance to the Revolution”.
Like all cities and towns worldwide, Paris was a stinky, filthy and unsanitary place before the building of the sewers. For an outline of the world history of sewers, see the website www.sewerhistory.org, and for the world’s earliest reference to sanitation, see the admonition in Deuteronomy 23:13.
The sewer museum of course includes an exhibit on the novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, with explanations in both French and English. In this first text panel, the English translation reads:
“In this ten-volume novel, Victor Hugo (1802-1885), a French author, has written passages that are of real historical value. The description of the sewers is an example.”
Though Les Misérables was originally published in ten volumes (as were many novels in the nineteenth century), most modern editions manage to pack the text into two or three volumes. I have a two-volume paperback edition from Gallimard (folio classique), which consists of 1800 pages plus notes.
Of the 1800 pages of the novel, fifty-nine take place in the sewers of Paris.
This text panel explains: “During the riots that took place in June 1832, Marius, Cosette’s boyfriend, was wounded on the barricades. While he was unconscious, he was carried by Valjean through the sewers to his grandfather’s house.”
In smaller print there is a sentence about the origin of Les Misérables: “It was during his period of exile on Guernsey that Victor Hugo wrote the ten volumes of his historical panorama. Les Misérables, which took several years to write, was published in 1862 and very soon became a popular success.”
This panel shows the route followed by Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris. The text explains: “Victor Hugo knew Emmanuel Bruneseau, the sewer inspector, who was bold enough to penetrate the underground maze of sewers and map them. The author’s tale of Jean Valjean’s adventures in the sewers was thus based on concrete information.”
The drawing on the right shows Emmanuel Bruneseau going down into one of the sewers. In Les Misérables there is a chapter called ‘Bruneseau’ which ends with a gathering of war heroes in the courtyard of the Tuileries to greet the Emperor Napoléon I in 1805. “Sire, said the Minister of the Interior to Napoleon, yesterday I saw the most intrepid man in your Empire. — What man is that? said the Emperor brusquely, and what has he done? — He wants to do something, Sire. — What is it? — He wants to visit the sewers of Paris.” And the chapter ends: “This man existed and his name was Bruneseau.” (This is from volume 2, page 656 of the folio classique edition.)
In the next chapter Hugo explains that Bruneseau’s “entire visit to the subterranean stream of filth of Paris lasted seven years, from 1805 to 1812.” On the first day, eight of the twenty workers who were with him refused to go any further because they found it too dangerous.
During his seven years of exploration, Bruneseau not only mapped the sewer system but also stabilized and extended it, and tried to disinfect it with the rudimentary means that were available at the time.
By the way, I’m not sure it’s really true that Hugo was personally acquainted with Bruneseau (as the text panel claims), considering that Bruneseau died in 1819 when Hugo was only seventeen years old. But Hugo had access to Bruneseau’s official reports, and he claimed to have known “one of the survivors of this exploration, an intelligent worker, very young at the time,” who later recounted some bizarre details.
As of 2014, visitors could walk along narrow walkways at the sides of the tunnel, while the sewage water flowed very loudly in the center of the tunnel below the wire mesh.
In the last ‘room’ (or tunnel) of the museum there was — oddly enough — a Wallace Fountain and behind that a ‘kiosk’ where they had a small selection of books and souvenirs for sale. This sort of thing always reminds me of the street artist Banksy, who once made a turbulent film entitled Exit through the gift shop.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2020.
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