Curator: Mark Siddall
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Our knowledge of poisons is almost entirely driven by detective fiction. Supposedly a ‘woman’s weapon’ it accounts for the demise of a number of characters before the hero, be it Poirot, Marple or Holmes, deduces the killer. Yet we first encounter poisons as a child in fairy tales like Snow White and novels such as Harry Potter. The Power of Poisons, a touring exhibition taking up residence at the Old Truman Brewery, puts these stories into a much wider scientific and historical context looking at where poisons come from and how the damage they do will depend on dosage and species.
It starts with the naturally occurring venoms created by animals to protect themselves from danger and the exhibition begins by immersing the viewer in a Columbian jungle environment. Surrounded by trees and plants, this section explores a variety of different creatures and how they use their poisons to kill or deter predators. At the centre is a case of Golden Poison Frogs, tiny but utterly deadly able to dispense with about 10 humans per amphibian! Nothing else in here is real and using some slightly dodgy-looking plastic or furry models, you learn about ants, spiders, snakes, monkeys and poisonous plants, as well as how birds wipe their wings in another creature’s poison for added protection.
Section 2 is a complete change of tone, offering the scientific underpinnings to a variety of famous myths and stories. By far the largest section, it begins with Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter potentially addled by the mercury in his hat, considers Emperor Quinn of China who took mercury regularly in the belief it would prolong his life, and the witches in Macbeth who use a poisonous potion to conjure up the spirits that foretell Macbeth’s future. Here too there’s a section on those famous detectives and a chart of Agatha Christie novels by type of poison, as well as a cabinet of curiosities full of antidotes and protective charms that help to establish the link between real poisons and their fictional life that is so familiar to us.
Section 3 focuses on detecting poisons with an interactive show aimed at children talking about the mysteries behind some real cases, while visitors can test their skill on a number of ipads in the room containing 3 separate mysteries to solve. Finally poisons are rescued from their negative image with some more information about how scientists are using animal venoms to find cures for a number of ailments, some of which are on display. At the press view only the lizard was in place, although not seeing a tarantula is always better than seeing one!
As a whole this is quite an ambitious project, presenting a broad picture of poisons by merging natural history and forensics, fact and fiction together. All of this is cleverly supported by a wealth of facts and anecdotes that make sharp connections across disciplines, countries, cultures and time periods. However, it would be impossible to read all the signs on a busy weekend, and while it covers a lot of ground its presentation is quite old-fashioned, using dummies and replica models which can be a little flat. Where The Power of Poisons uses digital technology it is really impressive, for example having an enchanted book which as you turn the page projects interactive pictures and stories that reveal more information as you touch them, or the stories of Hercules and Medea projected to wrap around vases and plates. Yet it really needs more of these touches to bring other parts of the exhibition to life.
It’s not clear from the press preview whether there would be sound effects to enhance each theme, but a few films in the jungle section of poisoners in action, a film clip from Snow White or Macbeth or projection on a cellular level of poisons at work would just lift the material. The exhibition also feels stretched across the cavernous space of the Brewery gallery so there are a lot of empty walls and spaces. Still this will certainly appeal to families looking for a fun afternoon out and while the forensics element is not in the same league as the excellent alternative at the Wellcome Collection, this is a chance to make interesting connections between fiction and science. Just don’t get too near those frogs!
Runs Until: 6 September