The Power of Performance

A sudden death on a farm outside of London, a relative who stands to inherit, and a young chemist determined to solve the mystery by developing a new test for arsenic. Gleaned from a real-world poisoning case, these dramatic details set the stage for an interactive live presentation in the Detecting Poison Theater, a new experience for visitors at the center of the Museum’s The Power of Poison exhibition, which opened in November 2013.

The Museum’s exhibitions began featuring in-gallery live presentations in the summer of 2012, with the opening of the Spiders Alive! exhibit. Throughout the day, visitors could join a 15-minute presentation about the basic anatomy and life history of a pair of amazing live arachnids: the rose hair tarantula and emperor scorpion, which were chosen for very specific qualities.

“The Chilean rose hair tarantula and emperor scorpion are both big and impressive, but they’re also pretty docile,” says Associate Director of Living Exhibits Hazel Davies. “They’re calm, so they could take being moved and handled and having lights shone on them.”

 

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In Spiders Alive!, presenters introduce attendees to living arachnids.


While an instructor handled the animals, a camera over the table projected the presentation onto a large screen, offering the entire audience a close-up view. A lively question-and-answer session, as well as a chance to handle touchable specimens including a tarantula’s molted carapace, rounded out the in-gallery experience.

 

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A Chilean rose hair tarantula from Spiders Alive!


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Kids get up close and personal with arachnid specimens in Spiders Alive!


The Power of Poison offered a more intricate live presentation that gave visitors some background on the development of toxicology—the branch of science concerned with the detection of poison—and prime them to solve poisoning mysteries in the penultimate section of the exhibition.

In the Detecting Poison Theater, presenters donned lab coats and invited visitors into a setting reminiscent of a forensics laboratory, then wove a tale that illustrated the rise of toxicology in the 19th century while detailing the effects of poison on the body.

“Since the presenters had backgrounds in science, they could loosen the script a little bit and adjust the show to visitor interest and aptitude,” says Senior Director of Exhibition Interpretation Lauri Halderman. “That helped to make the show more friendly to repeat visits, as every live performance was one-of-a-kind.”

The presentation also set the stage for the next section of the exhibition, which featured three accidental poisoning mysteries that visitors were invited to solve using clues in three-dimensional dioramas and The Power of Poison app.

 

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In The Power of Poison iPad app, sleuths can solve toxic mysteries on their own.


Given visitors’ enthusiastic response, and the opportunities to enrich, enliven, and even personalize the experience, live interactions like these are likely to be part of Museum exhibitions in the future.

“We’re taking the best parts of the live experience from the poison theater and taking them to the next level,” says Halderman, who is especially excited about including science-literate presenters who thrive on fielding impromptu questions from the audience and on off-the-cuff interactions that make each show unique.