London: Venom: Killer and Cure @ the Natural History Museum

I’m glad that I had so many posts from Manchester and the US on backlog, because I always find it really difficult to leave the house in January, and I just wasn’t motivated to go to many museums (it doesn’t particularly help that I work at a museum now – even though I still love visiting museums, I don’t always want to spend my days off in one). I was also battling a cold and jetlag for the first half of the month, which definitely didn’t help. But I finally dragged myself out of my flat in mid-January to check out the venom exhibition at the Natural History Museum, because the promise of stuff in jars is a great motivator, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I seem to go to the NHM far less than the other major museums in London (this is actually my first post about an exhibition there, though I have popped inside now and again over the years), I think because I perceive it as being always hideously crowded with screaming children, but I realised on this visit that if you go in the side entrance on Exhibition Road instead of the main one, it really isn’t any busier once you get inside than the Science Museum or the V&A, neither of which I seem to have any issue with visiting, so perhaps I’ve been unfair to the NHM. At least, it isn’t that bad on a weekday – I’m still not brave enough to attempt it on a weekend.

“Venom: Killer and Cure” was a bit tricky to locate; in fact, we had to ask for directions to it at the whale exhibit (the other special exhibition they currently have running), and we had to pass through several “zones” to get there (the museum is so big that things are assigned colour-coded zones), including the entrance hall with the blue whale skeleton (who is apparently named Hope) taking pride of place over the oft-mourned Dippy the diplodocus (honestly, I like Hope just fine, but I suppose I don’t have a childhood attachment to Dippy like other people do), but we eventually found our way. Admission is a whopping £10.50 (sans donation), but we got in for half price thanks to the National Art Pass (which is well worth getting if you live in London and go to lots of exhibitions).  (Apologies for the giant disgusting sting ray in the above picture – they scare the crap out of me, but the exhibition wasn’t that big, so I have a limited amount of photos and had to use it.)


The exhibition highlights on their website promised a lot of things, including:

“a live venomous creature,
the head of a gaboon viper, the species with the biggest known venomous fangs;
the insects with some of the most painful venoms known to science,
the enchanting flower urchin, whose venom can cause temporary muscular paralysis in humans;
the unusual love life of the emperor scorpion – where seduction has a sting in the tail,
the box jellyfish, whose embrace can kill humans in under five minutes; and
scientists whose ideas represent the cutting edge of venom research and its use in modern medicine”

and I suppose they did deliver, but in the most minimalist way possible. For example, they had exactly one live venomous creature – a tarantula in a glass tank. I was OK with that, because I definitely have no desire to touch a tarantula (though I’m fine with looking at them if they’re safely contained), but I was sort of hoping there’d be an opportunity to handle some snakes (though I guess not venomous ones!) or at least look at live snakes in tanks, because I love snakes, but dead snakes in jars were the only ones on offer (I mean, I do love stuff in jars too, but I like live snakes better than dead ones). Pretty much everything else on that list was there also in the form of dead and in a jar, or dead and tacked to a board, or dead and taxidermied…except for the scientists, which at least would have been interesting in a macabre sort of way. Again, I’m not really sure what I was expecting, because of course they’re not going to have a bunch of live venomous creatures hanging around, but I think I was just hoping the exhibition would be more engaging than it actually was. Because there was really no interactivity to speak of.

The exhibition opened with a large screen with a tarantula shadow projected on to it (which was a cool effect, particularly when you looked at it looming behind you in the mirror), which led into a very dark room containing cases of various preserved venomous specimens, with brief descriptions of each underneath. I enjoyed looking at these, but it didn’t take a whole lot of time to see them.

From there, the gallery segued into a round room with a tableau of a mongoose and cobra fighting in the middle, which was pretty neat. I also really liked the descriptions of the pain level of various venomous insect bites written by glutton-for-punishment researcher Christopher Starr. Most of them made me laugh, particularly the “W.C. Fields putting out a cigar on your tongue” one (I hope you can enlarge the above photo enough to read some of them for yourself!). The most venomous animal hall of fame was so dark that it was a little hard to see, especially some of the smaller insects, which had simply been pinned into place in the display. There was a short video featuring three survivors of venomous attacks telling their stories, which I didn’t really take time to watch because a family piled in there just as I approached (and although the exhibition was almost empty, there were a pair of really annoying visitors behind us who were pausing FOREVER in front of each display and blocking the case, so I wanted to make sure I stayed ahead of them).

The next room of the exhibition was probably the most interesting (and well-lit!) and was about historical medical treatments for people who had been attacked by venomous animals, as well as some uses modern researchers have found for various animal venoms. This included a great display with a big-ass jar crammed full of snakes (which was for some reason more exciting than all the jars with a solitary dead snake), and a preserved gila monster (I always seem to think they should be bigger than they actually are), as well as other cool cases full of medical stuff, like an apothecary jar and some venom-sucking syringes, and excitingly, some leaves that had been preserved on Cook’s first expedition(!).

The last object of note was a massive glass case with a preserved komodo dragon in it, which was given its own special room. I took the survey on my way out (I’m currently running the visitor survey at the museum where I work, so I feel obligated to do other people’s), and was interested to see that the things I was apparently supposed to have learned about in the exhibition didn’t seem to have been included anywhere, such as the difference between poisonous and venomous (I knew this already because I’m pedantic about these things, but I didn’t see it discussed anywhere inside). The shop attached to the exhibition was a bit meh – good if you’re into slow lorises, because they had about a million slow loris things, but not great if you prefer snakes and vampire bats.

I clearly can’t complain about all the specimens in jars, because that was mostly what this exhibition was, and I LOVE stuff in jars, but I could see that kind of thing in the free parts of the museum. If I’m going to pay to see an exhibition, I would rather see something more special, and with a bit of interactivity – there was one touch screen about ancient Egyptian treatments for snakebite, and that was basically it. Surely they could have come up with something cool and relevant to the subject matter (like a game where you had to try to tell whether snakes were venomous or not, or a screen or microscope where you could have examined some of the tinier insects up close, or some kind of electric zapping device that mimicked the sensation of an insect bite…well, maybe not that last one, but I’m just coming up with stuff off the top of my head here, and I think it’s more engaging than what they offered). It was also very repetitive, in terms of the animals represented – they must have had the same damn facts about the box snail (along with examples of said snail – maybe they got a whole case of them on discount) in there three or four times, so it really felt like they were desperately trying to bulk up the content to fill up an entire exhibition. I learned a bit about venom, and I enjoyed the descriptions of bites (and some of the more amusing object captions) and of course all the preserved animals, but for £10.50 (or even £5.25) I wanted more than what the NHM is already offering in its permanent zoological galleries. I think this would have been much better as a free display, rather than a special exhibition with a pricey admission fee attached. 2.5/5.

10 comments

  1. It’s kind of fun that they went for a “venom is spooky” vibe with all the black-backings and low lights. It certainly would’ve made me that much more panicked if I suddenly felt something on my arm. But it also makes me a bit sleepy.
    Those hilarious captions seem like the best part. I love the Tropical Fire Ant one – “You should have learned-”
    And personally, I like your idea of a sting-mimicking device. Not only would I give it a go, I’d probably do it a second time.

    1. That’s what I was thinking too, which is why I discreetly trailed my fingers on Marcus’s calf when he wasn’t looking, while we were in front of a case full of various creepy crawlies. He was not happy.
      I think I would try a sting-mimicker too. I used to play that arcade game that kept increasing the shock on your hand until you let go, and I imagine this would be similar.

  2. Funny, I also avoid NYC’s natural history museum because it’s always super crowded and can’t figure out a good time to go. Sorry this exhibition was such a letdown. I think I would be too grossed out to handle it and the tarantulas especially would freak me out (I can’t even look at pictures of spiders). The medical use of venom sounds very interesting though!

    1. I’m no spider fan, but I can deal with them if they’re in no danger of touching me. But I was super grossed out by the sting ray, and the scorpions and centipedes and things. Not so grossed out that I couldn’t look at them, but I’m sure glad there weren’t live ones!

  3. When I saw this title I thought it would be right up your street, so it’s a shame it was disappointing. I think I would probably have enjoyed it, but not £10.50 worth of enjoyment!

  4. Really interesting to read your take on it! I went in November and found it SO fascinating that I asked for Justin O’Schmidt’s book for Christmas haha (I did get in for free though using my MA card so may not have been quite so excited had I paid the full £10)

    1. I only paid a fiver, but I still don’t think I got my money’s worth. It was definitely interesting, just not large or engaging enough given what it cost! I should probably join the MA one of these days, but I can’t justify spending the money while my National Art Pass is still valid!

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