Things To Do In Utah: The Power of Poison at NHMU

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

Okay, listen. I’m a nerd. Let’s get that right out of the way, just in case you haven’t noticed yet, because I want you to understand that I love the Natural History Museum of Utah. (And am now finally a member! Hell yes!) In the last few years they’ve been host to some seriously remarkable special exhibits. The one about the history of horses? Transcendent, even if I wanted to carry on a spirited argument with that one placard about horse shoes. The one that was entirely about geckos? Life-changing. I literally own four geckos now and my life is profoundly enriched and I would possibly kill a man to be able to go see that particular exhibit again. (It’s cool, I went to the poisons exhibit, I totally know how to kill a man now.)

But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the kind of profound museum-related disappointment that I felt when I reached the end of the Power of Poisons exhibit that’s currently on display at NHMU. How had I reached the end? Why, and wherefore? Surely there was more I needed to learn about poisons. SURELY.

Alas, it was the end, which doesn’t diminish the fact that the entire exhibit, from beginning to end, was an absolutely fascinating, fact-packed thrill ride of myth, legend, and science, live reptiles and interactive screens, taking us from┬áthe forests of Colombia, to poisons in literature, to modern medicine and forensics. There’s a book whose pages seem to ink themselves before your eyes, illustrated scenes from mythology playing out on pottery, a video presentation on early forensic science, a series of interactive whodunnits, and plenty to see everywhere you look.

Between my interests in history and mysteries, and my slight addiction to forensic shows on TV, I was already a little bit of a poison enthusiast. But I learned so much about poison from this exhibit that I almost couldn’t pack it all into my brain-hole. I need to go back and visit the exhibit again just to take it all in a second time. (Which I can. Because I’m a member now. AMAZING.)

Here are a few of my favorite factoids from the exhibit:

  • There’s a tree so poisonous to human life that even standing beneath its leaves during a rainstorm will cause your skin to blister. No thank you.
  • There are places where ants, to assist the plants they like to live in, have basically killed off every other sort of plant in the vicinity; these are called Devil’s Gardens, presumably because they’re a lush hellscape of ants.
  • When history’s writers like Shakespeare talk about witches’ brews containing ingredients like “tooth of wolf” and “tongue of hound,” they likely weren’t just referring to random gross spell ingredients, but to actual known poisons like Wolfsbane and Houndstongue.
  • There’s evidence to suggest that early warfare might have included things like throwing pots filled with venomous insects or scorpions at your enemies. Bad. Ass.
  • Documents containing specific ingredients for “flying potions” made by historical witches included ingredients that would definitely induce a drug trip that would make the user feel like they were flying. A researcher in 1927 actually made one of those flying potions and got high off his ass. It doesn’t sound like the greatest thing, though… with ingredients like wolfsbane, mandrake, and belladonna, those mixtures would have been highly toxic; another researcher who decided to try one out actually poisoned himself and died.
  • In the early days of anesthesiology, doctors used curare to immobilize patients during surgery, not realizing that while it did keep their patients still, they were still awake during their surgery. Yiiiikes. (Interestingly enough, curare can also be used as an antidote to strychnine.)
  • Radium (yeah the actual radioactive kind) was considered a miracle cure in the 20s and you could buy everything from cigarettes to butter with radium in it, like it was a health product. Same with mercury and a lot of other toxic substances… you used to be able to buy teething powders with mercury in them to put in your kid’s mouth. That is super not recommended today, obviously.
  • Marie Curie not only unlocked many of the secrets of radiation, she also set up mobile x-ray vehicles in France during WWI and freaking drove them herself. Hero goals.

And those are just a few of the incredible collection of fascinating facts. I can’t even list them all because then I’d just be reading you every sign from the exhibit. Yeah, I did take cell phone pictures of them all so I could re-read them later.

This cool interactive book responded to pages being turned and touched. You can also play with it online here!

The Power of Poison is a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History, so if you’re not in Salt Lake and you can’t see it at NHMU, all hope is not lost; maybe it’ll wind up in a city near you! It’ll be on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah through April 16, 2017; you can find more information and purchase tickets here. There’s also a live theatrical performance connected to the exhibit, the Extreme Plants Traveling Sideshow, so make sure to check it out while you’re there!