Each of the bathroom stalls at the Science Museum features a framed tutorial on some aspect of waste treatment, like Toiletology, Mighty Microbes, and the Septic System.

Staff Columnist

Study Sewage in the Can

Public bathroom walls have always been great repositories of knowledge, providing such helpful consumer tips as where to go for a good time. But now, at the big building on Kellogg Boulevard, they've raised this form of communication arts to a science.

In fact, the bathroom walls at the new Science Museum of Minnesota are so flush with information, so ripe with illumination that the Minnesota Environmental Initiative recently recognized the public restrooms of the Mississippi River Gallery as the most environmentally educational site in the state.

They were not voted the most educational bathrooms in Minnesota, mind you. (In that category, they may have faced tough competition from the much-discussed unisex restrooms at the restaurant of the moment, Chino Latino.) But they were voted the most educational site in the state, period.

``We are so proud,'' the Science Museum's Alicia Cordes told me, in a slightly ironic tone, when I came to sniff out the story. Though I had failed to note the awards for architecture and education the museum has earned since it opened, when I heard the museum was earning kudos for well-curated commodes that reveal the inner workings of the regional water treatment system, I suddenly had to go. Really bad.

And I'm glad I did, because the hour I spent hanging in the ladies' loo (as the Brits like to call it) was very illuminating. For instance, I learned that wastewater flows at a rate of 1.5 miles an hour, and that 95 percent of it is just water (Who knew?). I learned that private homes use 63 percent of the water treated, public buildings use 5 percent. And I learned that giant Legos, dollar bills, swim goggles, and pacifiers tossed into toilets are retrieved everyday in sewage treatment facilities. (Though as a display of such items shows, you wouldn't really want them back.)

Never have I considered such things while sitting on the throne. Which is precisely why Pat Hamilton, director of environmental sciences at the museum, thought those facts belonged in the Mississippi River Gallery. ``I thought it would be a neat use of unconventional space,'' says Hamilton, who partnered with Metropolitan Council Environmental Services to create the displays. ``We rely on the Mississippi River for so much of our potable water, and then our treated wastewater goes right back into it, so why not tell that story right where the reality is so evident?''

There's always been a close connection between our toilets and the river. Before 1930, raw sewage from the cities went straight to the river, giving a pungent resonance to the nickname `` Big Muddy.'' Now restroom visitors can follow the flow of their flush with a series of kicky illustrations and text that deserves another award for finding so many fun new euphemisms for waste. Among them: ``big stuff and small stuff,'' ``clumps,'' ``activated sludge,'' and ``bad guys.''

Each of the bathroom stalls features a framed tutorial on some aspect of waste treatment -- for instance, Toiletology, Mighty Microbes, and the Septic System. ``That one is actually pretty interesting,'' noted Jean Lundstrom, a chaperone for a Forest View Elementary field trip. The team of 8-year-olds she shuttled -- Erin Hoepner, Melissa Voegele, Ashley Caron, and Emma Spring -- were more intrigued by the flatulent epic ``Ode to Odor'' featured in the handicapped-access stall. (Excerpt: ``Portent of doom from noxious bowel/A gathering gloom of vapor foul/It's then I suffer from olfaction/Choking back a gag reaction'').

Perhaps the most moving display is the tale of the e. coli bacterium written in the Reader's Digest, ``I'm Joe's Liver'' style and hung next to the sinks. ``You get rid of about 100,000,000,000,000 of me in each bowel movement,'' the e. coli writes. ``If I'm found in a lake or river, you know that some warm-blooded animal pooped there.'' There are no statistics yet on whether this display is prompting the museum's 23,000 weekly visitors to wash their hands, but during the hour I spent in the women's restroom, everyone did. Even the first-graders, who could not manage the text, were stirred by the hideous magnified portrait of these bacteria.

All this hand-washing leads to the single bathroom design feature that has prompted complaints: the hot-air hand dryers.

``No one likes them,'' notes Hamilton. ``But maybe after you've read everything there is to read in our bathrooms, you'll be more patient about having to use them.''

Laura Billings' column runs Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. She can be reached at lbillings@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5584.