‘Power of Poison’ for good, evil – now, then


Watch the movie “Alice in Wonderland” sometime and pay attention to the crazed guy at that tea party. The edgy one who’s rude, hyper and wears a high-top hat.

Author Lewis Carroll called his peculiar character “The Hatter” when “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was released as a novel in 1865, and that morphed into “Mad Hatter” as a sign of the times.

Why? The era’s hat makers suffered brain and other nervous system damage because they routinely used mercuric nitrate to remove fur from animal skins. The mercury poisoning caused tremors, irritability and worse.

That’s the backstory on the expression “mad as a hatter,” and the use of mercury in hat making eventually was banned.

The little history lesson is one of many in “The Power of Poison,” a new and major exhibit at Milwaukee Public Museum until July 7. The show was developed at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, before coming to Wisconsin.

Tales and trivia mix the contemporary and the ancient. We learn that:

+ Author Agatha Christie used poison to kill off characters in at least 28 of her 66 mysteries.

+ Nero, the last Roman emperor, hired a professional poisoner to thwart enemies.

+ Harry Potter used bezoar, a stone from the stomach of a goat, to save his best friend from poisoning.

+ High levels of mercury still surround the tomb of China’s first emperor, who swallowed the chemical in hopes of gaining immortality. Better known is his Terracotta Army, an estimated 8,000 clay soldiers buried with him.

Although poison is not exactly a cheery topic, neither is the study of it boring.

“There’s a taboo aspect to it,” acknowledges Julia Colby, curator at the Milwaukee museum. “You can do good or bad with poison.”

Missing from the original exhibit is “a live animal component” (translation: no poison dart frog, tarantula, gila monster), but plenty of other props set the mood.

Blowgun darts keep attackers at a distance in a re-created Choco Lowland Forest in Colombia, where venom in the natural world is referred to as a “biological cocktail.”

Next to a human-sized, sleeping Snow White is the notation that just one bite of poisoned apple rendered the fairytale character temporarily unconscious. In real life, the victims of pufferfish spikes or snake venom might suffer paralysis yet stay conscious.

Before modern-day anesthesia for surgery, there was opium, hemlock and mandrake to lessen the patient’s agony.

Magic toxins cure and kill in myriad stories of fantasy and fact. Humans have feared those who mix magic potions, calling them witches, and have historically sought aphrodisiacs to enliven love.

We avoid poison ivy. We use insecticide on pests. We don’t feed chocolate to dogs.

Nature figures out how to cope with poison too. One example: After howler monkeys eat leaves that are toxic, they eat clay from termite mounds, to lessen the toxin’s effect.

In the wide world of poison, the line between what saves a life and takes one sometimes teeters. We have learned to use some toxins as medicine and in scientific research.

Foxglove can cause a heart attack but is valuable in heart research too. An anti-clotting agent in bat saliva might help prevent strokes. Spider venom might help fight cancer.

Admission to “The Power of Poison,” which includes other museum exhibits, is $21 for adults (less for senior citizens, military veterans). Coming May 17 is “Pick Your Poison,” an adults-only evening event with “toxic traditions and venomous villains.” mpm.edu/poison

Here are five more Wisconsin museums with special reasons to visit.

“Cut Up/Cut Out,” Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau – See how complicated, creative and precise the process of cutting through material becomes. More than 50 artists show what they can do, in painstaking detail, to turn ordinary materials into something extraordinary. The show goes on until June 2. On view until Aug. 11 is “Regal Bearing: Bird Portraiture,” 60-plus holdings from the museum’s permanent collection. lywam.org

“In My Spare Moments: The Art of Harold F. Schmitz,” Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Madison – The collection of portraits and landscapes was sketched by an Army veteran during his time in the South Pacific during World War II. Understand how he used his artwork to illustrate and escape from the doldrums of military deployment. In place until summer 2020. wisvetsmuseum.com

“Southern Rites,” Chazen Museum of Art, Madison – Photography by Gillian Laub examines small-town life and racial strife in a part of Georgia where segregated high school proms were held until after her work was published in the New York Times Magazine in 2009. Laub also directed the HBO documentary “Southern Rites,” to be shown in Madison on April 16. Photos stay until May 12. chazen.wisc.edu

“Dressed to Play,” Oshkosh Public Museum – Summer has already arrived because this exhibit shows how attire for warm-weather activities has changed with time. Accompanying vintage outfits for kids and adults are historic photos of local people at play. Ends May 19. oshkoshmuseum.org

“Native Fiber,” Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts, Cedarburg – Native American artists use a wide range of materials to produce a contemporary assortment of wearable and other works. Think beadings, weavings, birch bitings, quilts, leather. The show ends April 28. wiquiltmuseum.org