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The Power of Poison at Old Truman Brewery

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
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What comes to mind when you hear the word "venom"? A seminal New Wave of British Heavy Metal band, or a gift from Lucrezia Borgia perhaps, but never an exhibition about one of the best and most subtle ways to kill someone. The poison exhibition at the Old Truman Brewery is a multi-discipline and multi-faceted look at this cunning and insidious ways of dispute resolution that exposes you to darkest facets of humanity.

Taking one facet, literature, it's clear that the most important device in plots is poison. From the poisoning of The King in Hamlet to Agatha Christie, conflict in stories has had poison as a methods to kill. Even in Greek mythology, poison serves as a metaphor for the blackest part of the human psyche, as it is corrupting and perverts something that can sustain life. Whether it's food, water or air, this exhibition shows how you are in an evolutionary struggle for survival.

One exhibit is scary on first sight, being a jungle set. Its kitsch nature is a frame for the most sinister organisms you're bound the find, including a cute little frog that's poison in a pretty pill. The exhibition shows that nature is red in tooth and claw, but it can be very subtle in being so. The most fascinating was the story of a biological weapons arms race between snakes and rough skinned newts, with a camper caught in the crossfire between the species when a newt crawled into the unwitting victim's kettle and dumping the venom as it boiled in the kettle. Once you become accustomed to it, your preconceived ideas just disappear as you become enlightened at the idea that nature is amoral and barbaric. You're forced to question whether nature is nurturing and good as we take advantage of it for our own uses, both good and evil.

The good being that the poison can be the basis for another cure, as the evil being that the nefarious use of inheritance powder to secure a fortune. You're made to question whether knowledge we have fought for over millennia is just another means to destroy ourselves. It would be more interesting if Professor Adrian Cheok, a Professor of Pervasive Computing at City University, made a poison simulator that simulated the effects of poisons like cyanide or digitalis. This would really make people empathise with the victims of poisoning. It could help actors develop their characters and how a poisoned chalice could be made more convincing.

Then again, it could give a bankrupt businessman some ideas by being a research tool for poisoners to bump off rivals. The biggest gripe I have is that it was too americentric, with few references to English poisoning cases like Graham Young or The Blackheath Poisonings. The poisoning is a quintessentially English form of homicide, after all. Not brutal, but subtle and from afar.
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When: Discover the alluring, seductive and terrifying role of poison and how it affects our everyday lives through nature, myth, medicine and healing
Where: 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL, United Kingdom
Cost: Adult: Weekday 13, Weekend 15
Child: Weekday 8, Weekend 9
Family of 4: Weekday 37, Weekend 45
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