Power of Poison
An exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History explores poison’s role in culture.
By HELENE STAPINSKI Published: October 25, 2013
IN an office of the American Museum of Natural History, a team of scientists, artists and multimedia experts were discussing what had poisoned Skippy, a cute Jack Russell terrier that had keeled over sick in his virtual backyard. Was it the chocolate he found in the garbage can? Did a snake, or a black widow spider, bite him? Or was a poisonous cane toad to blame?
Skippy is just one of many victims in the museum’s show, “The Power of Poison,” opening Nov. 16, to which the staff was busy applying finishing touches. Using iPads, visitors can examine the circumstances surrounding Skippy’s fictional poisoning and, controlling their experience individually, take a crack at solving the mystery.
But because the museum is popular with small children, Skippy does not die. Instead, his animated eyes turn into Xs, he runs erratically around the yard, he drools and he vomits a bit. Eventually, though, Skippy rallies to full health.
“We were not going to make this a scary show,” said the exhibit’s curator, Dr. Mark Siddall. “Instead you walk out saying, ‘Wow. That was cool.’ ”
Dr. Siddall spent two hours enthusiastically discussing poison and its properties at the museum recently, walking through some of the show’s highlights. The exhibit, which takes a look at poison’s role in nature, myth, medicine and human history, examines killer caterpillars, zombie ants and deadly vipers. It also looks at the possible victims, like the heavily slumbering Snow White. Plus the age-old question of what killed Cleopatra. Was it an asp, or something else? And while we’re at it, was Napoleon really poisoned with arsenic?
To keep things lively, there will be a Detecting Poison theater, featuring a live presenter, film clips and Monty Python-like animation, in which the audience helps track a true poisoning case involving a household outside London that fell ill in 1833. The father, George Bodle, died and the case was eventually brought to trial.
Not much was known about detecting poisons at the time, so murderers frequently used them, since symptoms often look much like those of many common diseases. Because of the Bodle case, tests were developed to detect poison in the body, leading to great strides in toxicology and forensics.
Museumgoers will visit a recreation of a 19th-century laboratory to try to solve the Bodle case, using props in the room and the clues on hand. They will then learn about the trial, its outcome and the scientific discoveries that followed.
“The 1800s were an amazing century when scientists mapped the periodic table, developed the first books on poison and learned how to treat them,” said Lauri Halderman, senior director of exhibition interpretation for the museum. “This case and what grew out of it helped change the social epidemic of poisoning.”
Arsenic, for instance, was so successful as a murder tool that it was known as “inheritance powder” in France — poudre de succession. If an old, rich uncle was taking too long to die of natural causes, arsenic was the poison of choice, said Ms. Halderman.
“The Power of Poison” not only focuses on foul play, but also looks at toxins in the natural world. In the introductory gallery, visitors will learn that poison is ubiquitous, found in everything from mango skins to butterfly wings. Foods like cinnamon, coffee and chili peppers get their strong taste and smell from chemicals that ward off animals and can be toxic if ingested in large doses.
Museum artists were busy building trees that will make up a miniature Chocó rain forest, a veritable land mine of poisonous plants and animals. Because the museum is science-based, poisonous animals from different parts of the world were not gathered in a fictional forest. The forest the artists have created is ecologically correct, with only animals that would share that particular Colombian ecosystem. There are models of yellow pit vipers, wandering spiders and grackles, birds that grab poisonous ants in their beaks and rub them on their own wings to help defend themselves against parasites, like lice and mites. Live golden poison frogs, which are ounce for ounce the most toxic animal on the planet, will also be on display, as will live poisonous anemones in an aquarium.
Final touches were also being placed on the three witches from Macbeth, life-size figures whose potion will be examined in the Myths and Legends part of the exhibit. A large book of potions, 4-by-2 1/2 feet, which the staff has unofficially named “the enchanted book,” uses touch technology, electronically read by sensors hidden inside the pages.
The interactive book, which the creators were trying to make look like one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, has scribbled annotations and hand-drawn illustrations, but comes to life as the reader turns the giant pages and touches the drawings. The eight pages include stories from mythology and examples of the use of the four poisonous plants featured: monk’s hood (also known as wolf’s bane), rhododendron, conium (a k a hemlock) and belladonna.
“Do you know why it was called belladonna?” asked Dr. Siddall. Because, he explained, it was once dripped into the eyes of women to make their pupils dilate and make them more attractive.
Another innovative display includes Greek urns upon which mythological stories will be projected, including the myth of Hercules and the Hydra. What starts as a simple Greek vase painting suddenly comes to animated life. After Hercules successfully kills the Hydra by cutting off its heads and burning the wounds so more heads won’t grow back, he dips his arrows into its poison blood to make his weapon more deadly. Hence, the Greek word “toxikon” which means “poison arrow” — the root for the word toxin.
To illustrate how poisons have been used over the years to treat medical conditions, a giant yew tree as high as the ceiling was being built for the exhibit. Yew trees, native to England, are so toxic that eating a handful of needles can be deadly. But a compound discovered in its bark is currently used in chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients. Dr. Siddall said that the healing properties of the yew actually come from a fungus that lives inside the tree, which scientists are now growing in laboratories.
On the literary end, there will be references to Harry Potter and Arthur Conan Doyle. A life-size Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland will be on hand to illustrate the term, “mad as a hatter.” The saying dates back to the 19th century, when mercury was used in the millinery business. Workers exposed to mercury would experience anxiety, memory loss and trembling — known as hatters’ shakes.
There’s also a life-size, laid-out Capt. James Cook, who, with some of his crew members, was accidentally poisoned while on an exploration of the South Pacific in the 1700s.
And of course, there’s Snow White.
“Do you think it’s possible to poison someone with an apple?” Dr. Siddall asked. “What if they ask you to take a bite first?” Cutting the apple with a knife that has poison on only one side, he said excitedly, might just do the trick.
“The Power of Poison” will run to Aug. 10.