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Choose Your Poison at Museum of Natural History Exhibition

By Margaret Kelly | November 16, 2013 12:33pm
  Nature’s deadly adaptations and their influence on human culture are the focus of a new exhibit.
"The Power of Poison" at the American Museum of Natural History
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UPPER WEST SIDE — The American Museum of Natural History is asking visitors to choose their poison.

From Snow White's fateful bite to Romeo's "timeless end," many of our favorite stories are laced with toxins, the natural origin and role of which in human experience are the subject of a new multimedia exhibition at the museum.

“What evolved in animals and plants as a defense against predators or means of preying has been used by humans throughout history for magic, murder, villainy, [and] intoxication, “ said museum president Ellen V. Futter.

The Natural History Museum’s exhibitions usually focus primarily on the natural world, but "The Power of Poison" “incorporates culture in a very deep and immersive way,” said Dr. Mark Siddall, the main curator of the exhibit.  

 Belladonna, monkshood, other poisonous plants appear in a bewitching volume that changes with each turn of the page.
Belladonna, monkshood, other poisonous plants appear in a bewitching volume that changes with each turn of the page.
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AMNH/D. Finnin

The exhibition includes images, dioramas, live presentations and artifacts exploring the ways that humans — real and fictional — have attempted to harness the powers and control the dangers of poison. One feature recreates the coven from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, three witches gathered around a cauldron bubbling with hemlock, wolfsbane, and yew. Another section introduces the perplexing case of Captain James Cook, a possible victim of accidental poisoning in 1774. A live presentation in the Detecting Poison theater explores the role of poison in real criminal investigations, including a landmark case in the 1830s.

"The Power of Poison" also explores the biological origins of these human curiosities and their many varieties in nature. A life-sized diorama brings visitors inside a Colombian rainforest crawling with live creatures with deadly properties, including a tiny frog whose skin is one of the most toxic substance known. An interactive “magic” book presents animated illustrations and information on the locations and effects of belladonna, monkshood, and other fatal flora.

“You’re going there,” Siddall said, “to be entertained and amazed.”  

"The Power of Poison" opens Saturday, Nov. 16 and runs through Aug. 10, 2014. More information is available here.