A party of schoolchildren threw up during a visit to a Roman museum that had recreated the smell of a latrine. Iain Murray spots a gap in the perfume market
Marketing is not without its detractors, but even its severest critics must, if they are honest, concede that it has transformed tourism.
Where once we had “places of interest” we now have life-enriching “visitor attractions”, areas formerly known only as prosaic names on the map have been sprinkled with pixie dust and magicked into fantasy lands such as Robin Hood Country; and historical ruins, once left to moulder and crumble, their grandeur undefiled by disabled toilets, are reincarnated as “heritage sites”. Best of all, the half curious gaze of the semi-detached day-tripper has become an “experience”, as a group of schoolchildren recently discovered.
We have all heard of a gut reaction, that understanding that bypasses the cerebral senses and speaks to us with a directness that is sometimes shocking. Well, that is exactly what happened to several members of the school party visiting the Dewa (sic) Roman Experience in Chester. In the search for historical verisimilitude that is the duty of every modern museum curator, the exhibition organisers had incorporated a latrine of the kind that might have been found in Roman settlements across Britain circa AD90.
There is, of course, a limit to how far one can go in recreating the past, so the latrines were without actors dressed, or half-dressed, in togas or military tunics, defecating or, harder still, simulating. Ingeniously, therefore, the museum decided to evoke the experience through the medium of smell. Just as one might suggest a Roman kitchen by filling the air with the aroma of, say, baking bread, so, reasoned the brains behind the Dewa Experience, visitors could better respond emotionally to the ancient privy via their nostrils. The result was a “man-made smell” whose noxious power struck the exhibition organisers as being just about right. Sadly, four pupils were so affected that they vomited on the spot.
Christine Turner, from the museum, explains: “The company that makes our smells for us told us that they had a new smell come in, called ‘Flatulence’.”
Who can doubt her word? It has the authentic ring of truth. One can imagine a delivery man from the company that supplies the museum with its smells pausing as he unloads from the back of his van the latest batch of Roman Armpit and Slaves’ Feet, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, and confiding: “We’ve just got a new smell come in. A real belter. It’s called Flatulence.”
The name is perfect. Perfumes are best marketed as evocative single-name brands, such as Obsession, Eternity, and Escape, and Flatulence would sit easily alongside those. Can you imagine one of those overpainted, hard-faced dames behind the counter of an in-store fragrance concession spraying the back of a customer’s hand with Flatulence? It would be worth the price of admission.
At any rate, the new smell what had just come in impressed the Chester Roman Museum.
“Obviously we were tempted to use it for our latrine,” says Christine Turner. Obviously.
“We used it on the Friday, it was incredibly powerful, but we assumed that over the weekend it would get more diluted with the air coming into the centre.
“However, on the Monday, when we had a couple of classes of schoolchildren visit the centre, the smell was still so overpowering that unfortunately four children vomited.”
The manufacturers toned down the product so that rather than evoking a legion of foot soldiers afflicted by a common gastric complaint it suggested maybe a cohort or two. Unfortunately, a further two children were sick. That’s what the Romans did for them.
Happily, the museum now reports that it’s got it just about right – foul, but not stomach turning, just like the real thing.
It would be sad if the events at Chester were to deter others from incorporating Flatulence into their historical exhibitions. The past is not a sanitised land populated by yokels in smocks, beaming maids in low-cut bodices, and winking beefeaters. It is steeped in poor sanitation and foul smells, in body odours and open drains. In the Middle Ages it was quite common for the peasantry to sew themselves into their clothes for the winter and to take a bath in the spring. It was a hierarchical experience: the head of the family had first dip, after which the rest took their turn. So if you were the youngest you would be bathing in the accumulated dirt of all those who had gone before.
If visitors to Shakespeare Country were to be assailed by Eau de Bumpkin their grip on the past would be greatly assisted, as indeed would their progress to the exit and to the Souvenir Shoppe, which is, after all, the epicentre of every tourist experience.
Now I think of it, the Dewa Roman Experience may be missing a trick. Perhaps it should sell purse-sized atomisers of Flatulence so that visitors could take away the experience with them and, at a later time or place, recreate in the most vivid way possible just how it was to be standing outside a Roman latrine in AD90 when Maximus Cloacus Colonus was inside feeling the effects of the night before.