MIAMI — My first understanding of poison came from Snow White, from that eponymous apple laced with some unknown substance that left her in near-dead repose. (That a kiss could loosen her from its grips seemed dubious even then.) Currently at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, the princess appears glittering and comatose in a small forest glen where it’s always autumn. A placard muses about the type of poison strong enough to put her in suspended animation.
Snow White is one of many famously poisoned characters, both fictional and real, in The Power of Poison: From the Depths of The Sea to Your Own Backyard, an exhibition that’s traveled to various science museums for the past five years, taking an immersive, highly interactive look at the myths, realities, and mysteries of poison — poison as medicine, killer, and literary device. Mercury, the exhibition reveals, was once mistakenly used to treat illnesses; China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, consumed pills of the stuff to build his immunity to it. It’s suspected they ultimately killed him, though his tomb, guarded by the Terracotta Army, is rumored to have contained rivers of thick, silver mercury, coursing along each other. Like Snow White, he appears in The Power of Poison as a looming, life-sized mannequin.
Another center of focus is a giant, illustrated diorama of Alice in Wonderland’s tea party — complete with clinking teacup sounds and a backstory on the Mad Hatter. Erethism mercurialis, a neurological disorder that affects the entire central nervous system, comes from mercury poisoning; English felt-hatmakers used mercury in the “felting” of hats, exposing them to the chemical’s vapor. Lewis Caroll most certainly knew about what came to be known as mad hatter syndrome, which produced tremors and irritability, and had probably witnessed it himself (more recent and accurate speculations, however, suggest the Mad Hatter was based not on the illness, but on British furniture dealer Theophilus Carter, whose eccentricity had no neurological cause).
These mannequin-style figures are some of the best things about The Power of Poison, a show designed primarily for kids but awesome — that is, awe-inspiring — for the rest of us. Macbeth’s Three Witches stand round a burbling cauldron, with a placard describing the varying herbs that rendered those who ingested them “in flight,” or dreamily stoned enough to soar on imaginative broomsticks: wolfsbane, henbane, mandrake, belladonna. Nearby, there’s a massive, Medieval book, leather-bound and yellowed with age; upon closer inspection, every page is an interactive screen depicting poisonous plants. Glowing descriptions appear, the cursive unfolding, after a page is tapped. It’s a fascinating plaything, but its text is a fair, if unintentional, introduction to herbal medicine.
The Power of Poison begins to make its transition from the history of poison to its contemporary science. There are clustered descriptions of plants, trees, and herbs throughout, those that heal or kill or, better still, are used as the foundations of pharmaceutical medicines — like the poisonous bark of the yew tree that contains cancer-fighting compounds. You’ll find it in Taxol. The exhibition opens, in fact, in a tree-covered simulacrum of Colombia’s Chocó forest, with a display of golden poison frogs, tiny and probably freaked out — in the forest, the poison dart frogs are lethal, but born in captivity, not so much. The alkaloid toxin coating their skin comes from a food-derived source; without it, they’re not poisonous at all.
Most animals harboring that kind of toxin are considered venomous, not poisonous — venom has a delivery method for its toxicity, like an animal’s fangs or tentacles, while poison is merely transferred. That’s why poison ivy has to touch the skin to deliver its blow. Poison ivy is presented here by means of the wild cashew: the leaves, bark, and fruit coating the tree contain urushiol, which you’ll find in those itchy leaves of three, mango skin (the amount is minimal) and, yes, cashews (after being boiled and de-shelled, they’re safe).
This fine line between the healing and deadly is probably what gives The Power of Poison its pull; so much of our diet is just a little poisonous, just a little toxic. We know this already — it helps explain the constant, low-level anxiety associated with various diets — and it’s good to have it explained, in bright color and accessible terminology. An interactive game, designed by Kristen Orr, even provides clues to help users figure out what caused a dog to faint or a ship’s captain to die.
To make The Power of Poison Frost-specific, the Miami show contains two additional components: a “Toxin Takeover” throughout the museum (#ToxinTakeoverMiami) where animals and plants in other galleries are marked as either venomous or poisonous; and a sweet, mini-exhibition of illustrations by local botanical artist, Donna Torres. Her watercolors of flora, like the strychnine tree and the baby-pink opium poppy, are accompanied with explanations of their properties. Like Ernst Haeckel’s depictions of marine life, they’re both naturalistic and fantastical. The dangerous and toxic, The Power of Poison reiterates, are often pleasing to the eye.
The Power of Poison: From the Depths of The Sea to Your Own Backyard is on view at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science (1101 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami) through September 3.