(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
"The Power of Poison" offers a focused journey through the realms of myth, history, medicine, literature, murder and dementia — starting with a glittering display of chocolates.
The show, at the American Museum of Natural History , is entertaining, illuminating, inspirational and definitely spellbinding.
Sit down and watch a film of a poisonous water snake take on a freaky moray eel. It's hard to know who to root for, but that toothy eel has my vote.
On land, the displays probe the different ways poisons were used from ancient times, for good and bad. Socrates was condemned to drink a fatal brew of hemlock, but in lesser dosages, the plant functioned as a calmative.
In a gallery of life-sized cutouts devoted to villains and victims, Nero leads the parade. (Lucrezia Borgia, it seems, just had a bad press agent, most especially her brother Cesare). The Roman emperor and champion fiddler had a professional poisoner in his employ, a woman named Locusta who was known for her mushroom dishes.
In a separate niche, the Mad Hatter presides over the tea party Alice crashes after sliding down into Wonderland. Why him? Because until top hats went out of fashion, London was rife with hatters who suffered from neurological symptoms from working with the mercuric nitrate required to shape hats.
Visitors can step into a popup laboratory to help investigate the mysterious deaths at a 19th-century British dairy farm. Arsenic, we learn, was once called "the inheritance powder."
Three interactive tablets let you sift through clues and solve a puzzling death. For instance, what happened to Skippy the dog, who frothed up fatally in his back yard (without eating chocolate), though his thoughtless humans had ditched old batteries by the fence and allowed a cane toad to visit?
Happily, live creatures also beckon, among them a plump Gila monster who slumbers in his spare aquarium, keeping his famously forked tongue to himself. Doughnut fans will want to wish the lizard pleasant dreams as they pass by: A component of the creature's venom helps regulate blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes.
Tiny yellow frogs and moody music transport us into the mysteries of the Choco jungle in Colombia. Canny locals stick their arrows into the frog and then bring down supper with their blow-guns.
Which brings me to dinner and the exhibition's most dramatic display: three witches huddling over a steaming cauldron.
And like these weird sisters from "Macbeth," you too could stir up a thick, yummy soup tomorrow with no double trouble at all. You really don't need an entire wolf for the tooth -- just wolf's bane mixed in with a few ingredients like eye of newt and easily procured at your local organic market. Plus tongue of dog.
In the museum shop I picked up Joel Levy's "Poison: An Illustrated History." Levy includes a fascinating chapter on the two most famous poisonings in our own era: Bulgarian activist Georgi Markov, who was pricked by an umbrella tipped with ricin in 1978, and Putin adversary Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after somehow ingesting polonium.
_ "The Power of Poison" runs through Aug. 10 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/the-power-of-poison.