Inside a Lethal Exhibit Dedicated to the Power of Poison

By Leslie Horn on at

Poison can be a curse, a killer, and even a medicine, an alchemical substance that appears in everything from myth to literature. You might not think of poison as being this multifaceted, but that's exactly what the American Museum of Natural History's new exhibit, The Power of Poison, delightfully urges you to do.


What is it?

Inside a Lethal Exhibit Dedicated to the Power of Poison

An exhibit that explains the many roles poison has played in nature, history, culture, and beyond, in a way that you've never considered.

Why Does it Matter?

Because poison effects you, whether you think about it or not. Ever known anyone with cancer? If they underwent chemo, well, that's a form of poison. Poison is used both to harm and kill—but ultimately, we have also found ways to use it to our advantage.

Poison is also a very important part of our culture. We all know the story of Snow White. But could that poison apple have really put her to sleep without killing her? How does that relate to surgery and anaesthesia? My mind was blown.

Exhibition Design

There is a very clear thematic progression in the Power of Poison. It starts in nature. The curators take you to South America, where you encounter poison frogs and snakes, and you learn about how natives harness the natural poisonous resources to make tools of their own.

Inside a Lethal Exhibit Dedicated to the Power of Poison

Then, you're greeted with some of the most notorious witches in literature, Shakespeare's trio from Macbeth, which leads us into the discussion of poison in literature.

Inside a Lethal Exhibit Dedicated to the Power of Poison

There are some stories of poison that are probably very familiar to you. Take literature's most famous star crossed teens, Romeo and Juliet, one of whom met death by poison. Then there's Snow White, and Alice's dear insane friend, the Mad Hatter.

In the exhibit, all of this is presented like an elaborately designed amusement park ride. Snow White lies before you, entombed in a glass case, waiting to be saved. It reminded me of Disneyland's "It's a Small World" ride, but with science and useful information. The exhibit then progresses into history, where we learn about China's Emperor Qin, who used to take poison daily, thinking he might build up a tolerance.

Inside a Lethal Exhibit Dedicated to the Power of Poison

There's also a section that points out how often we see poison in children's lit. Harry Potter? Comic books? Yes, yes, and then some. This is followed by an interactive portion, where a curator explains the origins of forensics and the role of presence of poison in the 18th century. That then opens into a section with a series of poison stories, and this part is mostly focused on kids, where you're given a scenario and you have to determine if a person or an animal was actually poisoned.

Inside a Lethal Exhibit Dedicated to the Power of Poison


The exhibit opened yesterday, Saturday 16th November, and runs until 10th August 2014. Well worth a visit if you're visiting the US anytime soon.


One way to gauge how much you like an experience is that you think about it long after it's passed, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about the power of poison. I've honestly never even thought about poison like this. It has such duality—it is good and bad, used to heal and kill. This exhibit presents those polarities in such a perfect way.

The exhibit is also exquisitely designed. When you're in South America, you hear forest sounds, as you gaze at a case that's home to tiny poisonous tree frogs. It's like a movie set, and it's amazing.

Don't Like

There was nothing not to like. If anything, I would have loved for it to be longer.

Who's It For?

Anyone! It's a very engaging exhibit, and it's something kids and adults will enjoy. Seriously, the museum invited a classroom  to join in on the preview, and those kids were having a great time.

Can't make it to New York for the Power of Poison? There's an interactive iOS app that lets you play along at home. But seriously, give this one your time. [Power of Poison]