Eliminate poison and you wipe out much of the world’s great literature, not to mention a slew of movies, crime stories and much of the TV line-up. Consider: no Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, no Mad Hatter or Macbeth. No Hunger Games. And most definitely, no American Horror Story: Coven.
What you don’t usually think about as Madame Bovary ingests arsenic or Medea gifts her rival with a poisoned dress are the natural origins of these silent killers (if you don’t count the shrieks of the dying as sounds). At least, I don’t as a rule. But The Power of Poison, the absorbing new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, gets you thinking about where killers lurk in nature, how they evolved, how their effects can be harnessed to prevent illness and disease — and how innocent they can look.
Consider the miniature yellow frog you see encased in a vegetation-filled box upon entering. “It’s probably more poisonous than anything in the show,” says Mark Siddall, a curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology who organized the exhibition. The frog looks like a child’s bath toy and is probably the cutest toxin delivery system imaginable, ingesting lethal plants that leave it unharmed but passing along the deadly results – instantly — to anything it chooses to bite. Moral: be on your guard if you ever visit Colombia’s Choco forest.
The show is jam-packed with creatures, dioramas, keyboards and facts that fascinate
at literally every turn. Nicotine and caffeine are toxic to insects – and even humans if too much is ingested. A square of baker’s chocolate contains enough theobromine, an alkaloid of the cacao plant, to kill a Yorkshire terrier. A good reason not to nibble on pretty blooms? The leaves of the passion flower – a botanical kingdom looker – are laced with cyanide.
Part of what makes poisons mesmerizing is the who-done-it stories that accompany them throughout history. A highlight is a live presentation by a white-coated scientist who leads viewers on a step-by-step investigation into the deaths of a 19th-century English farm family (spoiler alert: you learn a lot about arsenic).
The countdown of famous poisoners – and victims — through the ages is just as riveting. Was Napoleon really poisoned? What really killed Cleopatra? And what was the mysterious substance that flattened Captain James Cook on his ship in 1774?
You have until August 10, 2014 if you want to visit the museum for the answers.
Holiday bonus: the museum’s annual tree decorated with origami ornaments — a tradition that dates back 40 years — has a Power of Poison theme this year. Among the deftly folded ornaments are depictions of poison ivy, yellow poison frogs and jellyfish as well as literary characters with poisonous connections like Sherlock Holmes and the witches from Macbeth.
Looking for a hotel nearby? The Excelsior stands directly across the street and is home to Calle Ocho, the most stylish Latin fusion restaurant on the West Side. Ask for a room with a view of the museum.
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West between 77th and 81st Streets; 212 769-5100. Open daily 10 am to 5:45 pm except Thanksgiving and Christmas.