“Poison is in everything and nothing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy”. I scoffed at this quote projected on a large, white screen as I entered The Power of Poison exhibition in The Jubilee Hall at the V&A Waterfront. In all my expertise of watching medical dramas I have yet to witness a scene where a patient is brought back from the brink of death by the natural healing power of poison. Sceptical, yet hauled by curiosity, I entered the exhibition.
Each room is separated by categories and subcategories that highlight a specific aspect of poison, exploring its role in nature, history, literature and myth. My eyes flicked around greedily as I learned about various poisons, venoms, toxins, the difference between them as well as their dichotomy. Poison has a dual role in nature as both a killer and a cure, notably with foxglove, which causes heart attacks in animals but helps fight human heart disease, or salt, which is vital to proper nerve function but if taken in quantity can be fatal. In history, the powerful Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi desired to live and rule forever. He ingested mercury to secure eternal life, and in doing so managed to kill himself. Other historical victims of poison include Cleopatra who was supposedly bitten by an asp and Napoleon who, it is suspected, died of arsenic poisoning.
Much as I wanted to read the informative captions my eyes were constantly drawn to the displays which included life-sized recreations of the deadly vines of Colombia’s Choco forest, and the three witches of Macbeth huddled over a large cauldron, bubbling with a poisonous broth of “tooth of wolf”, “tongue of dog” and “toe of frog”. Snow White lay unconscious in a glass case, condemned to an endless slumber from a single bite of a poisonous apple, while a medieval enchanted book revealed grim uses of toxic plants with the touch of a finger.
The highlight for me was when I tested the very limits of my courage as I petted the silky smooth skin of Angel the Python. “Calm down, calm down. It won’t bite. There you go. Take deeeep breaths.” The patient snake-handler kindly reassured me as she coiled the slithering yellow reptile around my stiff neck. Other animals on display included a Gilla Monster which sat stiff behind glass no matter how hard I willed it to move, and a frighteningly large, hairy and moody looking Rose Tarantula. Resisting the overwhelming urge to disobey the signs that said “Do Not Tap – Live Animal”, I whooped with uncontainable glee as I saw Nemo swimming around in his fishtank, along with Pufferfish, Zebra Turkey fish and other tiny sea creatures that swim comfortably in poisonous environments without batting a fin.
The Power of Poison Exhibition is an intoxicating concoction of knowledge, mysticism, and high tech storytelling that creates the effect that it was masterminded by a technologically proficient witch and I am enchanted.
The Power of Poison Exhibition runs until 12 June 2016 at Jubilee Hall, Watershed, V&A Waterfront. Learn more about this exhibition at ExpoSA