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Power Of Poison In Cape Town

By Johan Kloppers

Poison – one little word with so many implications. It’s been used as a method of murder, pest-control, suicide and execution throughout history and it occurs naturally in the plant and animal worlds.

It’s scary, weird and exotic and dangerous, but at the same time titillating and mysterious.

And you can learn all about it at The Power Of Poison exhibition, on at the Watershed at the V&A Waterfront until next month.

It’s a travelling exhibition from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and is brought to South Africa by the same company which previously hosted Dinos Alive, The Art Of The Brick (the Lego exhibition), and Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.

There are five themes, the first being Poison In Nature, which is the first room you enter. It’s done up like a jungle and in the centre is a glass case containing the cutest teeniest tiniest of frogs which are so pretty – if you can spot them – but standing on one is not a good idea. The frogs are not nasty; they’re just poisonous because of their diet. In fact, flora and fauna are not generally malicious in their toxicity; it’s merely a way to put off predators or for hunting. Poisoning on purpose is the perverse domain of we humans.

The next room is called Poison In Myth And Legend. There are beautiful life-size displays of Snow White in her glass coffin and the three witches from Macbeth stirring their bubbling cauldron. It’s fascinating to learn how these stories had their basis in truth. While Shakespeare’s recipe appears to call for evil ingredients, most of them are simply alternative names for plants and herbs. Tongue of dog for example, refers to houndstongue, used by herbalists to treat piles, lung disease and persistent coughs.

Here too you will learn about substances that could possibly have put Snow White into her death-like trance, and how emperor Qin Shi Huang ingested mercury which the ancient Chinese believed could bring immortality. Ironically, this probably killed him. He was buried with his Terracotta Army, incidentally, the subject of an upcoming exhibition this year.

Downstairs you’ll find a flow of areas combining Detecting Poison, Poison By Accident and Poison For Good (often, antidote to poison is another). There is also a segment about poison in literature – from Agatha Christie to Harry Potter.

There is a shop at the exit where I bought Sparkling Cyanide by Christie because I love the title and because I’ve never read one of her books. Really.

Opposite the display case with the Potter reference, is a real-life item to which it relates.

I particularly like the Alice In Wonderland display, which explains why hatters were thought to be mad. Because they were, that’s why.

There is a strong educational element in the exhibition, and schools are encouraged to visit.

The Power Of Poison runs until June 12, and is open daily from 10am to 7pm.

Tickets are available from or at the box office. Prices are R140 (adults), R85 (children), R95 (pensioners and students), and R350 for a family for four (two adults and two children). Children under the age of five enter free. Special school packages are available.

For more information, visit, call 021 418 0738 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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