Families can explore a jungle, solve a poisoning mystery, and step into a fairytale at Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s summer blockbuster exhibition—The Power of Poison.
Packed with interactive exhibits, live animals, and dramatic displays, this family-friendly exhibition examines poison in nature, literature, and culture. The exhibition, organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, opens May 27, 2017 and runs through September 4, 2017.
“In the natural world, toxic plants and animals protect themselves by naturally producing poison,” said Dr. Eric Dorfman, the Daniel G. and Carole L. Kamin Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “This exhibition will enable our visitors to safely view live poisonous specimens and also put on their detective hats to solve related mysteries.”
The variety of evolutionary adaptations among toxic plants and animals is at the heart of the exhibition, which also examines humans’ attempts to understand poison’s potency and how researchers use venoms and other natural toxins to develop new medical treatments.
The Power of Poison uses interactive exhibits like an “enchanted” book, terracotta pots that tell a story, live animals, and solvable poisoning mysteries to draw visitors into a world of poisonous peptides and pernicious poisoners.
“The interactivity and use of technology in The Power of Poison is what really makes it a stand out exhibition,” said Becca Shreckengast, director of exhibition experience. “Rather than just screens and buttons, this has innovative pieces of tech that are artfully designed and heighten the visitor’s experience.”
Visitors will learn myths and facts about poisonous botanicals in an oversized “enchanted” book with heavy cloth pages that digitally change and move when they are turned or touched. The story of an ancient poisoning plays out on a set of terracotta pots whose figures look like they have come to life, and an iPad station invites visitors to solve mysteries involving accidental poisonings by comparing symptoms to toxic culprits.
In addition to learning about the many different types of animals that use poison as a natural defense, visitors can see real poisonous animals living in the exhibition. A poison golden frog and a tarantula will be on exhibit, and museum staff will do daily live animal shows in The Power of Poison gallery.
“The museum is home to many live animals, and this exhibition gives us a great platform to talk about some of their amazing adaptations and the adaptations of closely related species,” Chelsey Pucka, director of lifelong learning, said.
Poison in Nature
Plants and animals have developed amazing toxins and chemicals over millions of years that help them protect themselves against predators of all sizes. From South America’s poisonous frogs to Pennsylvania’s mountain laurels, toxins can be found across the globe.
When visitors enter The Power of Poison, they find themselves on a wooded path in a remote Colombian forest where they are surrounded by poisonous flora and fauna.
A real poisonous frog is displayed with information about what makes its skin toxic, and oversized replicas of poisonous creatures let visitors examine venomous fangs and other ways of delivering toxins.
Poison in Literature
Poisonous plants and other toxins can be found at the core of countless fairytales and legends from around the world. The Power of Poison explores instances where some of the most unlikely stories contain kernels of truth.
Life-sized dioramas show Snow White slumbering and the three witches from Macbeth dropping gruesome ingredients into a cauldron. Visitors can examine an array of objects and artifacts that people once believed would protect them from poison, like a celadon dish, which was thought to break or change color in the presence of poison, and several types of fossils, which were believed to have purifying, protective, or curative powers.
Poison in Medicine
The Power of Poison also touches on how the field of toxicology was born and how scientists today are using natural toxins for good.
Built around a replica of a poisonous yew tree, exhibits on toxicology explore plant and animal toxins that are being studied as sources for potential ingredients for life-saving new drugs—from the saliva of vampire bats, which contains an anticlotting agent that could protect stroke patients, to cone snail venom, which may prove useful in treating epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
Pittsburgh’s “Mr. Yuk”
The museum also curated a special section of the exhibition to celebrate the creation “Mr. Yuk,” a universal symbol for household poisons that was developed locally.
“Mr. Yuk,” the famous sticker featuring a green face with his tongue sticking out, was developed in 1971 by Pittsburgh pediatrician and Carnegie Museum of Natural History board member Dr. Richard Moriarty, who also developed the Pittsburgh Poison Center and the Poison Center Network.
“Dr. Moriarty has done so much locally and nationally to prevent fatal poisonings, so we are excited to celebrate his contributions,” Dr. Dorfman said. “He has also been a longtime friend to the museum, heading up many programs such as the Carnegie Discoverers and the R.W. Moriarty Science Seminar Series.”
Dr. Moriarty developed the universal “Mr. Yuk” symbol to avoid confusion between the traditional poison skull and crossbones symbol and the previous Pittsburgh Pirates logo.
The section will tell the story of the development of “Mr. Yuk,” show how it is used to mark poisonous things, and feature one-of-a kind “Mr. Yuk” pieces of memorabilia from Dr. Moriarty’s personal collection.
Programming for The Power of Poison will seep through the museum all summer. As part of the exhibition, poisonous and venomous specimens will be highlighted throughout the museum.
A rotating display in the Hall of Botany will showcase plants that are poisonous to our pets. Life-threatening asbestos and other minerals will be safely highlighted in Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems, while venomous snakes will be identified in the Pennsylvania Reptiles and Amphibians exhibit.
Visitors can learn about toxic cosmetics made from lead in Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt or check out a species of dinosaur believed to have been venomous in Dinosaurs in Their Time. The arsenic pigment, Paris green, will be identified in a Hopi mask in Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians.
Poisonous butterflies, toxic to predators, will be shown in a display of invertebrates, and an antique, cut-away model of a viper head in Discovery Basecamp will demonstrate how its long fangs deliver venom to predators or prey.
A murder mystery soirée, The Case of the Power of Poison, will be held on May 31, 2017, and poison-themed activities will be throughout the museum on the exhibition’s opening day as part of our Super Science Saturdays program.
The exhibition is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (www.amnh.org). Locally, this exhibition is supported by PA Distance Learning Charter School.