Thursday, November 14, 2013

“The Power of Poison” Injects Mystery into The American Museum of Natural History

By Tami Shaloum

What’s your poison? Is it odorless, tasteless arsenic? Perhaps it is a venomous snake? Or maybe it’s the theobromine found in chocolate, which is highly toxic to dogs? Yes, these are just a few of the diverse poisons that are explored in The American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit “The Power of Poison.” We all know that poison is used for many evils, as well as for protection, but did you know that poisons could also be used in medicines to help people heal from a wide variety of ills? This exhibit, curated by Dr. Mark Siddall, provides an educational and entertaining look at poisons found in nature, myths and legends, history, and literature.

We begin by entering a replica of the Chocó Rain Forest in Colombia, where many forms of venomous wildlife exist. The different flora and fauna on display showcase their toxic nature often used as protection. Here you will find the typical Museum of Natural History dioramas featuring both live and replica models of animals. Model bugs are magnified to three times their original size, live golden poison frogs demonstrate that being tiny doesn’t make a creature any less deadly, and a video recreates a mysterious real-life poisoning by newt.

Golden Poison Frog Photograph Provided By AMNH
Next, we enter the realm of the fantastic, where stories, myths, and legends come alive, and famous figures come under scrutiny for their connection to poison. Have you ever wondered why the Alice in Wonderland character is called the Mad Hatter? (The answer is actually based in the history of the hat-making process.) What were those witches in Macbeth really brewing in their cauldrons? Other characters on display include Snow White and the poisoned apple; Harry Potter and the bezoar, known as a universal antidote to poisons; Westley and Vizzini’s battle of wits from The Princess Bride (Did you know you really can’t immunize yourself against poison by consuming a small amount every day?); and Hercules and the Hydra, told cleverly by animation projected onto clay pots. These stories are broken down to explore the use of these poisons and learn more about their effects. One particularly amusing display is about people who practiced witchcraft by brewing potions and claiming they could fly. Guess what: They were really just doped up!

Alice in Wonderland "Tea Party" Image Provided By AMNH
Macbeth "Witches Brew" Photo Provided By AMNH
Other displays include protective charms and amulets such as frankincense, gold, and bezoars; poison detectors like opal, toadstones, and silver spoons; and a cool, interactive “Enchanted Book” to help you learn more about different legends. Another interesting feature of the exhibit is a toxicology demonstration where an actor walks the audience through a mystery of an actual poisoning that occurred in the 19th century that facilitated the introduction of forensic evidence in court cases. She then invites everyone to move on to the next room to try and solve three more mysteries.

This exhibit is great fun for all ages, especially if you’re into mythology, nature, or just curious about poison. It’s interactive, engaging, and very informative. The exhibit opens on Saturday, November 16, 2013 and runs through August 10, 2014. Visit "The Power of Poison" exhibition website for more information.

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