Great Escapes

01.08.14

This Exhibit Could Kill You: The Museum of Natural History Takes on Poison

Deadly vines in the jungles of Colombia, toxic witches’ brews, and a noble woman with a lethal ring. A new exhibit in New York takes a peek inside the dark world of poison.

Who knew poison could be so much fun?

Crowds of people of all ages are piling into the nearly pitch-black exhibition, “The Power of Poison,” at the American Museum of Natural History to immerse themselves in all things concerning the sinister toxins. But in between being terrified by scary stories out of the jungles of Colombia and trying to solve murder mysteries, visitors are also being reminded of how poison is relevant to our daily lives in both good and bad ways; theobromine in chocolate gives dogs seizures, but research on the foxglove flower, which causes heart attacks in animals, has helped create heart disease drugs for humans.

The exhibition is broken up into four major sections: poison in nature, poison in myth and legend, villains and victims, and poison for good. The first of these is more of an anti-travel brochure for Colombia, detailing the Chocó rain forest plants and animals’ use of poison for survival. The ubiquitous dangers, ranging from golden poison frogs to deadly vines and scary ants, may be almost more frightening than the vestiges of the drug wars. But the show’s curators aren’t trying to just shock and entertain viewers; they want to explain the reason for all the toxicity. The exhibit points out, for instance, that immobile plants face over 500,000 types of insects who want to feed on them. Their best defense is poison.

Perhaps the most fun part of the exhibition is the section on poison in myth and legend. Starring Snow White, Romeo & Juliet, witches, mad hatters, a Chinese emperor, and Harry Potter, the show delves into the history of poison and pop culture. Most visitors will know the story of the Mad Hatter (hatmakers exposed him to mercury that left him “mad”), but some may not know the legend of Emperor Qin, who united China, but in his zealous quest for immortality drank mercury. He went so far as to have rivers of mercury set up in his tomb, along with his famous thousand-soldier strong Terracotta Army.

We all know about witches and their wicked brews (Hocus Pocus anyone?), but the reality is that many of the potion ingredients we find in fiction are real toxins including opiates, hallucinogens, and aphrodisiacs. In 1927, one German historian tried a recipe for a witch potion that dated back to 1589 and described experiencing wild dreams in which he was able to fly, and that “finally progressed to erotic licentiousness.” According to the exhibition, a second person tried the same potion and died.

A section on villains and victims is quite similar, detailing historical figures like Nero (who employed a professional poisoner, and who favored offing people with cherry laurel water), Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Napoleon, and Ponce de Leon. All were either allegedly killed by poison (Napoleon thought his captors were poisoning him, but it turned out he had stomach cancer and was suffering from arsenic in the green walls at St. Helena) or employed poison (Lucrezia allegedly wore a hollow ring full of a poison called la cantarella).

“We all know about witches and their wicked brews, but the reality is that many of the potion ingredients we find in fiction are real toxins.”

The curators left no stone unturned in their attempt to make the exhibition a form of infotainment; there is a Broadway-esque presentation in between the final two sections, which keeps the seats filled as an exuberant man in a lab coat explains how poisons work. Also in this pick-me-up are murder mysteries for visitors to solve.

And finally, in case the terror has become overwhelming, the exhibition ends with a portion on poison for good, highlighting the toxins found in nature that have saved lives. The needles of the yew tree can kill you, but the bark is important for many modern drugs. And many wealthy, image-conscious visitors have probably encountered botulinium toxin, of which one-millionth of a gram can kill you, but doctors use it in safe doses to fix closed eyes, jaw clenching, and for Botox.

The exhibition is well worth seeing, despite the crowds. (Though the museum attempts to control the number of visitors with timed entries, there is usually a swarm). Besides, you might find just that right potion to spice up the weekend.

‘The Power of Poison’ is on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City through August 10, 2014.