A quick bit of research revealed that the Power of Poison Exhibition, offered by none other than the esteemed American Museum of Natural History, is a hugely interactive, fun and immensely popular exhibition that looks at both the good and bad aspects of poison, as it is found in: nature, history, literature, medicine and even fairy tales! I was instantly intrigued by this and my guest visit was set for mid-April.
I have to admit, I was shamelessly excited about this, for there I was happily telling everyone about the pending Expo a month before my planned visit and so when Saturday, April 16th dawned, I was decidedly amped and excited for the Expo, especially after having passed through the V&A’s Watershed, where this event – like the Titanic Expo – will be located until June 12th in Cape Town, I had seen the promotional posters, with their eye-catching, emboldened green text and clawed witch’s hand clutching Snow White’s infamous poisoned apple…
I also really liked the fact that the Expo staff were – when handing out pamphlets (with a special 10% discount voucher stapled to them) – donning these awesome glittery, emerald-green witches’ hats (I’ll explain why further in), but more than that, I suppose I was intrigued and drawn by the promise of discovering whether poison was friend or foe and why, and learning more the changing roles it has played throughout history and the shaping of our world.
So last Saturday, I took a leisurely stroll from the V&A Waterfront, and made my way over to The Watershed, where I was welcomed to the event by the friendly and enthusiastic staff.
At the ticket office, one can purchase an audio guide as an extra. I opted to forgo this additional aid but I am sure it only adds to the fullness of this excitingly tempting, family-friendly Expo! (You can also book in advance in the convenience of your home when you purchase your tickets online from Web Tickets.)
Green is the primary colour that prevails throughout and it really works well! Also, be sure to give the first display ‘enclosure’ – directly after the ticket office – a cursory glance on your way past. I didn’t really do this when I visited but looking at my photo of it now, I think I can spy some serpents curled up inside…
Although the Expo runs daily from 09:00 a.m. to 19:00 p.m., I entered at 13:00 p.m. and it was quite busy even at that time. This is unsurprising as, since its opening on April 1st, it was pretty fully booked when I checked online!
Please note: no smoking, weapons, drinking, eating or flash photography is permitted inside the Expo itself. You can, however, take photos with your flash off and for me, this was a huge bonus as all photography was prohibited at the Titanic Expo.
For this Expo, you head up the stairs first and, when you step behind the dark curtains, you instantly encounter vivid green lighting and silken banners with twisting snake imprints. This, like the lighting, lends to the aesthetic appeal of the Expo and also adds a ‘creepy’, almost suspenseful element to it, which is so often associated with poison. Naturally, I was delighted by this! 🙂
The first display ‘bubbles’, set apart from the rest before you officially enter the Expo, teach us poison depends on who or what we are (the human treat, chocolate, for example, is deadly for your dog, as the ingredient – theobromine – causes seizures in canines), as well as the dosage (a bowlful of salt is the second sobering example) and finally, some poisons that affect animals are medical breakthroughs for we humans – and therein lies the true power and mystique of poison. You quickly learn that when it comes to poison, perspective is everything.
Then it is on to the main exhibit, which transports you to the mystical (and in many ways, dangerously deadly) remote depths of the Chocó forest, located near the coast of Central Colombia. Yet another silken info. banner gently reminds you that, though some of its occupants are deadly or toxic, “think of this: none of those weapons really targets us,” adding that when we are bitten, stung or poisoned, we’re mostly caught in the crossfire.
Once you step into the Chocó forest, your imagination might have you feeling you’ll be venturing deeper at your own peril, as lifelike, orangey Howler monkeys peer at you from tree boughs. The murky jungle atmosphere is further painted by the convincing vegetation, consistent green lighting and canopy netting, as well as by the suspenseful classical music that plays in the background.
The informative panels at each display are excellent. This was something I had previously encountered with the Titanic Expo, but I was even more fixated with the facts, science and imagery behind each display this time.
I also particularly like that you get a background history of each poison and it was fascinating and a little startling to learn that even some of the most deadly poisons, like cyanide, can be found in smaller quantities in food stuffs like: sugar cane, barley, maize and wheat to name, just a few or that a single, huge plant family, Solanaceae, includes plants that are toxic to both humans and animals, like mandrake and the deadly nightshade, but also consist of food crops like potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants.
You will also be interested to learn how certain animals, including bark-eating elephants in Tanzania and the aforementioned Howler monkeys, both eat a specific type of clay found in their habitat that treats or ‘binds’ toxins, including bitter tannins, and helps them to thrive when they might otherwise perish from the aftereffects of their diets. Kaolin, a special clay, is also a standard treatment for food poisoning in pets… it’s pretty wonderful to think that the things we take for granted, like the actual clay of the earth, are more vital to the planet’s life than we truly realise. These were just some of the things that caught my eye at display number one.
Another cool feature of the info. displays is that you get an idea of the effects, treatment and danger rating of each natural or man-made poison found throughout the Expo. This varies from blister-causing poison ivy to the Golden Poison frog (again found in Central and South America) which, if you make contact with the frog’s skin with an open wound (even a cut), can cause cardiac arrest and indeed, death – and according to one of the excellent Expo staff on-hand, these little critters only grow to be 5cm max. so make no mistake in thinking that the smaller a creature, the less potent its poison…
You can also view some live creatures, including the poison dart frogs (which are fed toxin-free crickets and flies so they are harmless in this habitat but just to give you an idea, I read on the board, “count the number of frogs on display (hint: it’s no more than a handful, though I only caught sight of two) and multiply by 10. That’s the number of humans who could – theoretically – succumb to the poison secreted by all of these frogs (in the wild).”
Don’t worry though, all live displays are well-barricaded to protect we humans and the animals themselves. Even so, please don’t tap or knock against the glass – these are live animals and they don’t deserve to be distressed or harmed by us. They are there for us to observe, nothing more. You may take photos of them but don’t expect high quality close-ups; you’ll be lucky to even make them out in the photos – especially when it comes to the miniscule dart frogs!
In this first section, there really is so much to see and read up on, including bubble- and live-display cases, magnifiers and just before you exit this section, you can also sit and watch a short documentary. (There are screens throughout, often with places for an audience to sit, so keep an eye out for those too and don’t pass them by, as they’re equally interesting.)
My highlight was definitely the poison dart frogs, which are so exquisitely marked and adorable to look at that it is hard to imagine their being even remotely dangerous (ha) and the eyelash pit viper.
He wasn’t too interested in the visitors, as he stayed curled up in a thick, lime green coil in the far corner of his little cabinet but when the lady there told me that he could, if he struck me, cause my blood to clot within seconds, resulting in uncontrollable bleeding, you could say I had even more respect and fear for him than I usually do when it comes to snakes – and I am pretty terrified of them in general!
I think I probably stepped back a bit when she pointed this out and added that was the reason for the “double casing of the glass”. My reaction? A very stunned, “Oh, wow,” and a thoroughly alarmed quick glance at the glass’s sturdiness just to ascertain that it was indeed extra thick. 🙂
I must just add that the guides and staff found throughout the Expo are absolutely great at curating the exhibition and they really know their facts and information off by heart – you can compare it to the information boards if you don’t quite believe me but I found that they were spot on every time and provided some nice, additional information that you would not otherwise have.
I noticed they were also bilingual, extremely friendly and helpful, coming up to each of us inhabiting any given room and telling us something different or useful – so don’t be afraid to ask questions or start a conversation. In closing on this topic, I must say I was particularly impressed to discover that staff were readily available throughout the Expo and even at the entrance and exit. Well done on this!
Yet another thing that made an impression on me was learning that, “without venom, insect sociality might not have even evolved.” This and discovering how insects, plants and animals (and yes, humans too) are all somehow dependent on each other for survival or even, in some instances, their own self-defences, was a strangely humbling reminder of how everything on this earth serves a purpose and has an important role to play – no matter how great or small it may be in size or stature.
So, after learning about everything from poisonous birds to nicotine-containing vegetables and painful rituals indigenous Brazilian men must undergo when they come of age (it involves bullet ants and allowing themselves to be stung repeatedly… Yikes!), you can proceed to the next section.
I spent well over half an hour in the first section, but I was trying to accumulate as many photos and notes as possible and I wanted to really read through all the boards and thoroughly enjoy each display and honestly, time does tend to pass by unnoticed when you’re in there.
Now the next section kept us all enthralled. It reveals some fascinating and even humourous stories and myths behind poison, though some are historically accurate. For example, in the olden days, before the discovery of germs, people weren’t sure if sickness was due to magic, disease or poison and some diseases, like cholera and malaria, were thought to be caused by a poisonous air called miasma. Malaria stems from an Italian word mala aria, which means ‘bad air’. Today, we naturally know that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes and not poisonous air.
Magic potions were another thing that were once, in actual fact, probably simply poisonous ones. Hence the ‘double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’ scenario that greets you in this section as The Bard, Shakespeare’s three witches (from Macbeth) creepily hunch over their luminous, bubbling cauldron (literally… It’s a cool sound effect) and concoct their infamous potion. Everyone was taking snaps of them as they make for a pretty awesome display!
This is probably the most fun and delightfully interactive section and it covers everything from poisonous plants to famous historical battles. You learn about the ancient fortress of Hatra, which would have been found in modern-day Iraq roughly 1,800 years ago. It tells the story of how the fortress was besieged for 20 days by the Roman Empire, after which time they finally broke through the city’s walls but then, curiously, they fled…
I’ve always loved this story, though, through the Expo, I learnt of a telling, new fact that really adds up: modern scholars now suspect that the reason for this unusual retreat was down to the fact that the Roman soldiers had death thrown at them from above “in the form of ceramic pots filled with venomous insects or scorpions hurled from the city walls.”
Then you encounter stories about the origin of death (from Sudan) and how small animals got their poison (Choctaw territory, U.S.) and finally, at least on the right side of the room, there is the enchanted Book of Poisons, appropriately surrounded by giant toadstool mushrooms and a pool of mystical light. (For fun, you can check out the online version of the book here: http://www.amnh.org/the-power-of-poison.) You can turn its soft pages and use touch icons to interact with it – this is one instance in which words do sort of leap off the page at you. 🙂 It’s a popular feature from what I observed on the day.
Then there’s a deeply sleeping Snow White, with her raven locks and milky skin, her infamous poisoned apple displayed alongside her forest bower. Poison can indeed paralyze someone enough to make them appear dead, though they can be revived fully, just like Snow White was in the fairy tale.
Kids will really love this Expo – there’s a enough informative and fun, interactive or visual/audio content to keep them thoroughly engrossed and the startlingly lifelike mannequins will certainly help in this endeavour, but the real beauty of the Expo is that it’s perfect for people of all ages; I watched families and even older men and women wandering around with me and they were all deeply immersed in the Expo, taking photos or stopping to closely read the info. boards.
Before you leave this section and head downstairs, you can read about some radioactive remedies (think: mobile x-ray vehicles used by Nobel Prize winner, Marie Curie, during WWI and radiotherapy, which after years of ‘misuse’, is now being used to fight cancer) and miracle cures gone bad, like Paul Karason of California, who drank water, containing silver, for years as a ‘home remedy’… His health didn’t seem to suffer, though silver can cause liver damage, but ingesting the metal slowly turned this man’s skin blue!
The main feature of this display is a stunning lifelike Oriental display of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, who sought immortality through (possibly) long-term mercury exposure. When he died in 210 BC, his famous, life-size Terracotta Army of soldiers (another fascination of mine) were buried with him, apparently to help him rule on in the afterlife. The area around his tomb still shows high levels of mercury. This was probably my favourite display in that final upstairs section.
I must say, I really loved the downstairs section, especially the first part where you learn about poison in literature. For someone who loves reading and books, this is a wonderful display.
On one side, you have a ‘tea with Alice in Wonderland’ black-and-white display, featuring the Mad Hatter, white rabbit and a pouting Alice (it looks precisely like the scene from Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and an old top hat, sold by Rogers, Peet and Co. in NYC around 1900 – which further teach us about mercury poisoning and the truth behind mad hatters – whilst to your left, there is an imitation book shelf containing old and new copies of famous books that featured poison in them, despite their varied genres.
These include: Arabian Nights, Agatha Christie’s 66 book titles, 28 of which feature poisonings (she is apparently the most popular novelist of all time), I, Claudius by Robert Graves, Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Conan’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, The Princess Bride and perhaps most recently, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, which include poisons like basilisk venom as well as supposed cures for poisons like bezoars (hard objects found in the digestive tracts of goats and other animals).
Then we discovered a few myths and fabled beliefs formerly held by people across the globe; they believed in numerous ways and means of detecting poison. For example, toadstools were believed to heat up in the presence of poison, according to a European superstition, and in Malaysian legend, hornbill spoons and buttons would change colour in the presence of poison, whilst Venetian glass was said to shiver or explode when poisoned wine was poured into it, according to Italian tradition.
Next, there are poison purifiers, protectors (like ophite – otherwise known as ‘serpentine marble’ – and garnet and emerald) and antidotes. For example, China’s Realgar wine, which contained sulphur, was said to be an antidote for poison, as was frankincense, according to Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder.
After that, it’s all about Greek mythology, a dubious doctor in William Salmon (1644-1713), who was called a quack or ‘mountebank’, and who was accused of lying about his medical degree, yet, even so, he was one of London’s most consulted medical practitioners during that time.
My next highlight was the section covering famous people poisoned throughout history. Cue, Cleopatra, Napoloen Bonaparte, Lucrezia Borgia (her prominent, dangerously ambitious Borgia family were infamous for their poisonings in Renaissance Italy), crazed Roman ruler, Nero and others! The lifelike cut-outs are pretty awesome! 🙂
Then I, along with several others, sat down to watch a rather funny but scientific video clip on Understanding Poisons called ‘A Tale of Toxicology’, which discusses the Marsh test and arsenic poisonings. (Apparently, modern-day forensic investigations can be attributed to Marsh’s efforts to capture arsenic poisoners.) The display in front of and around the seating area and screen is pretty cool – keep an eye out for Marsh (he’s seen better days though, poor guy) and his lab.
After that, we all had some fun playing a bit of ‘who-done-it’ when we tried to guess which poison had killed who in the next smaller section. I only managed to get one out of three correct but if you read the hints carefully before twisting the circular panel around to reveal the answer, you may fare better!
Then, the final section of the Expo covers medical marvels, the origin of pharmaceuticals (pharmaceutical is an ancient Greek word which means: “poisoner, sorcerer or one who gives medicines”) and reptile remedies.
For example, Gila monsters may have a dangerous bite but scientists have discovered that a component of their venom known as exendin-4, lowers blood sugar and since 2005, a drug made from exendin-4 has been successfully used to treat Type II Diabetes.
There’s also a fish tank that is literally a medicine cabinet as its inhabitants, anemones (they may be poisonous predators with their deadly tentacles but their venoms are currently being studied for potential uses to treat cancer, obesity and even multiple sclerosis), killer cone snails (being studied to develop potential medicines for: epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease) and sponges, reminding us yet again that one creature’s poison may be another’s cure.
The very last room before you exit (there’s a small shop outside where you can purchase Expo merchandise from both the Poison and Titanic Exhibitions) includes a montage of poisonous critter and reptile photos, a live display of a hairy, fat Chilean Rose Tarantula, as well as a large imitation Yew tree, which, though it is so poisonous that eating even a handful of its needles can kill a person, a chemical found in its bark has proven to be an effective anti-cancer medicine, Taxol, now known as paclitaxel since the 1990s.
When I exited the Expo around 14:35 p.m., the lady outside asked me if I had enjoyed the Expo and I proceeded to rave about it. She told me that some people have suggested it needs to be even longer, so good is it! I half-agree, to be honest, because I had so much fun in the Expo (possibly even more than at the Titanic Expo in February) and learnt so much that I think I would have loved it to be a little longer too but with over 200 exhibitions already, we’re certainly not short on content!
On your way out, you pass a few reptiles from the Snake & Reptile Park. I was pretty grossed out and scared of the snakes I saw in there – let’s just say they are suitably large and every time I took a photo of one, it seemed to be staring at me!
Unlike a few brave (or crazy…) souls, I couldn’t even bear the thought of having the thick Burmese python draped around my neck when the handlers offered this. If any snake freaks me out, it is those amber eyed, yellowy white pythons, though I think they are quite beautifully marked.
I had an absolutely amazing time at the Power of Poison Expo and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone for the following reasons: fun, interactive and wholly educational world-class exhibits, with some wonderful live creatures to boot; friendly, helpful staff constantly on-hand to further add to your overall experience, good value for money with over 200 exhibitions and awesome, lifelike features, as well as a really well-decked out venue in The Watershed and above all, some humbling reminders and lessons about the power of poison both for good and bad in this world.
As such, I can easily award the Power of Poison Expo a firm 10/10 overall rating because honestly, there’s nothing I can fault about either the Expo itself or the experience I had there.
Well done to Expo RSA, all sponsors and partners, The Watershed, V&A Waterfront venue and everyone else involved in bringing this wonderful and highly fascinating Exhibition to local shores – keep up the excellent work! 🙂
I also would like to say a personal thank you to Mr Marius Basson, Jarrett Lang and Manic Global, who made this review possible by welcoming me back to yet another excellent Expo!
The Power of Poison will be running every day till June 12th at the The Watershed, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, from 09:00 a.m. to 19:00 p.m (Monday to Sunday).
Ticket prices run as follows:
- Adults: R140 p/p
- Children: R85
- Pensioners and/or Students: R95
- Family of 4 package: R350 (2 children and 2 adults)
- Children under 5 enter free
- School bookings welcome, teachers enter for free.
For more information on The Power of Poison Exhibition, please visit: www.exporsa.co.za or call +27 (021) 418 0738.
Additionally, you can email Expo RSA at: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow them on social media. Facebook: Expo RSA | Twitter: @Expo_RSA and | Instagram: @expo_rsa | Social media hashtag(s): #PowerofPoison and #PoisonCPT
Please note: All opinions and sentiments expressed in this post are entirely my own – as are the above photographs – and they are in no way influenced or necessarily shared by any other institution, person or entity. Thank you.
Author: Tamlyn Amber Ryan
Tamlyn Ryan is a writer and blogger, who runs her own travel blog, called Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust. Despite a national diploma in Journalism, her preferred niche remains travel writing. She is a hopeless wanderer, equipped with an endless passion for road trips, carefully planned, holiday itineraries and above all else, the great outdoors.