Poison can be a curse, a killer, and even a medicine — an alchemical substance that appears in everything from myth to literature. You might not think of poison as being this multifaceted, but that’s exactly what the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit — The Power of Poison — delightfully urges you to do.
What Is It?
An exhibit that explains the many roles poison has played in nature, history, culture, and beyond, in a way that you’ve never considered.
Why Does It Matter?
Because poison effects you, whether you think about it or not. Ever known anyone with cancer? If they underwent chemo, well, that’s a form of poison. Poison is used both to harm and kill — but ultimately, we have also found ways to use it to our advantage.
Poison is also a very important part of our culture. We all know the story of Snow White. But could that poison apple have really put her to sleep without killing her? And how does that relate to surgery and anesthesia? My mind was blown.
There is a very clear thematic progression in the Power of Poison. It starts in nature. The curators take you to South America, where you encounter poison frogs and snakes, and you learn about how natives harness the natural poisonous resources to make tools of their own.
Then, you’re greeted with some of the most notorious witches in literature — Shakespeare’s trio from Macbeth — which leads us into the discussion of poison in literature.
There are some stories of poison that are probably very familiar to you. Take literature’s most famous star-crossed teens, Romeo and Juliet, one of whom met death by poison. Then there’s Snow White. And Alice and Wonderland’s dear insane friend, the Mad Hatter.
In the exhibit, all of this is presented like an elaborately designed amusement park ride. Snow White lies before you, entombed in a glass case, waiting to be saved. It reminded me of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride, but with science and useful information. The exhibit then progresses into history, where we learn about China’s Emperor Qin, who used to take poison daily — thinking he might build up a tolerance.
There’s also a section that points out how often we see poison in children’s lit. Harry Potter? Comic books? Yes, yes, and then some. This is followed by an interactive portion, where a curator explains the origins of forensics and the role of presence of poison in the 18th century. That then opens into a section with a series of poison stories — and this part is mostly focused on kids — where you’re given a scenario and you have to determine if a person or an animal was actually poisoned.
The exhibit opens Saturday, November 16, and runs through August 10, 2014.
One way to gauge how much you like an experience is that you think about it long after it’s passed. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the power of poison. I’ve honestly never even thought about poison like this. It has such duality — it is good and bad, used to heal and kill. This exhibit presents those polarities in such a perfect way.
The exhibit is also exquisitely designed. When you’re in South America, you hear forest sounds, as you gaze at a case that’s home to tiny poisonous tree frogs. It’s like a movie set, and it’s amazing.
There was nothing not to like. If anything, I would have loved for it to be longer.
Who’s It For?
Anyone! It’s a very engaging exhibit, and it’s something kids and adults will enjoy. Seriously, the museum invited a classroom from PS 87 to join in on the preview, and those kids were having a great time.