Whether it is a form of defence or of power, a targeted or diffuse mortal arm, an environmental threat or a hope for the medicine of tomorrow, poisons have always stimulated fear and fascination.
The Latin word “venenum” refers to poisons developed by humans as well as to the poisonous substances derived from plants, mushrooms and snake venom.
Poison conjures up a double ambiguity: it is both a substance present originally in the natural environment but also a mixture prepared for criminal purposes, which, depending on the dose, can take a life or save one.
The exhibition describes the roles played by poison in history and culture, science and belief, medicine and criminology.
The exhibition trail
Works of art, historical and ethnographic collections mix and dialogue with the natural-science collections to illustrate the uses of poison during the course of history.
History of poison
Let’s look back in history, marked by the poisoners and the poisoned
Venoms and toxins
Whether they are bacteria, micro-algae, mushrooms, plants or animals, there are many species that produce poisons
Uses of poisons
For war, for eliminating pests and also for improving our daily lives – discover the different uses of poisons
From poison to remedy
Venoms, toxic plants and minerals – discover how toxins can be pharmaceutical allies.
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Poisoned arrow (Burkina Faso – late 19th century)
Poison for arrow tips is still used in many regions of the world, whether for hunting or for fighting. The result of ancestral knowledge of available natural resources, poison for arrows may be of vegetal, animal or bacterial origin or a blend of all three.
Zoomorphic crested ciwara mask (Mali – early 20th century)
Faced with the power of poisons, people have sought ways to protect themselves and counter its effects. In Africa, the ciwara cult provided protection for those who cleared the fields, as they were particularly exposed to the risk of snake bites.
Moon Jellyfish, Aurelia aurita
The emergence of toxicology in the 19th century enabled a better understanding of the characteristics of venoms. Difficult to obtain, jellyfish venom is still poorly researched but is of special interest to researchers for its anaesthetic qualities.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the increasing use of life insurance policies led to the emergence of a new generation of poisoners who were greedy for their inheritance. Thus was born the myth of the “black widow”, a woman in love or self-centred who uses poison and whose crimes were a commercial heyday for the press.
A signet ring with a hidden compartment
In the 20th century, poison was used as a weapon of war. During the Second World War, if undercover agents were captured by the enemy, they were instructed to swallow the cyanide pill hidden in their rings in order to avoid being forced to talk under torture.
The death of Socrates by Jean-Baptiste Alizard, (1762)
In ancient times, poison was used as a judicial sentence. The philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.), accused of sacrilege and of corrupting youth, was condemned to drink a cup of the poisonous juice of hemlock, a deadly plant.
Ivory opium pipe (China – 18th/19th century)
Opium, an extract of the Indian poppy, was used in medicine to relieve pain. From the 19th century, its consumption became ritualised and is today classed on the boundary between drugs and poison.
Mexican pink tarantula (Brachypelma klaasi)
This tarantula is equipped with many stinging hairs on its abdomen. When they touch human skin, they cause severe itching and even serious allergic reactions.
Stibium, sulfide of antimony
Among the 80 chemical elements of the earth’s crust, four can be toxic: mercury, arsenic, lead and antimony. Antimony was used in cosmetics as eye makeup and as a medication to heal eye infections and injuries