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Moon JellyfishImages (c) Trustees of the NHM, London

Venom at Natural History Museum

14 November 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

The Natural History Museum is one of London’s most famous and beloved institutions, with their collections covering the archaeological, the entomological and the ornithological. In their new exhibition, they cover the gamut of the natural world, as well as medicine and anthropology, to look at the history of venom.

Though venom might not immediately strike you as particularly complex, this exhibition shows not only how many animals rely on it to protect themselves, but the impact it has had on culture and medicine. Though it may kill and injure countless people, it has also led to numerous discoveries and important medical treatments that have helped many others.  
 
The exhibition is split up into different rooms, in which are displayed different animals, cultural objects, and examples of medical discoveries, taking a viewer on a complicated journey through venom in many forms.  There are many animals on display, from spiders, wasps and jellyfish to flowers and birds, showing us that venom has a surprisingly large presence in the animal kingdom. One interesting example is the bullet ant, whose bite, unsurprisingly, is supposed to be one of the world’s most painful, akin to a bullet.  Amazingly, the exhibition has also sourced a vest into which these tiny ants are sewn. This vest was used in South America, as a coming of age tool for young boys. 
 

Image credit: Close up of a toxopneustes pileolus flower urchin © Trustees of the NHM, London

Though venom might not immediately strike you as particularly complex, this exhibition shows not only how many animals rely on it to protect themselves, but the impact it has had on culture and medicine. Though it may kill and injure countless people, it has also led to numerous discoveries and important medical treatments that have helped many others.  
 
The exhibition is split up into different rooms, in which are displayed different animals, cultural objects, and examples of medical discoveries, taking a viewer on a complicated journey through venom in many forms.  There are many animals on display, from spiders, wasps and jellyfish to flowers and birds, showing us that venom has a surprisingly large presence in the animal kingdom. One interesting example is the bullet ant, whose bite, unsurprisingly, is supposed to be one of the world’s most painful, akin to a bullet.  Amazingly, the exhibition has also sourced a vest into which these tiny ants are sewn. This vest was used in South America, as a coming of age tool for young boys. 


Image credit: Bullet ant © Trustees of the NHM, London
 
In the room about the medical impacts of venom, they have collected some early historical artefacts discussing the impact of venom to our early ancestors, as well as collecting examples of various anti-venom drugs and antidotes from around the world. You can explore a medical papyri from Ancient Egypt with tips for how to deal with snakebites, or have a closer look a tiny vial of black-widow spider anti-venom.  In this, the history of venom lives side by side with medical discoveries, showing how the documentation and experimentation into venomous animals has actively enhanced and changed the world of medicine forever. 
 
Most strikingly, the exhibition also has an enormous Komodo dragon on display.  Previously thought to have strongly bacterial saliva, the Komodo dragon was recently discovered to be the world’s most deadly land-animal, producing complex venom that inhibits prey in multiple grisly ways. The specimen is on display right at the end of the exhibition, letting viewers get up close to this huge beast and ponder the dragon’s venomous teeth.
 
The exhibition allows its viewers to think about the cultural and historical impact of venom on human life, interestingly showing the differing uses and experiences of venom depending on where you are in the world.  Not only can you have a close look at some creepy-crawlies, but you can also learn more about how venom is used and produced by a wide variety of animals, as well as how it has been harnessed by humans throughout history.
 
Venom is at the Natural History Museum until May 13 2018.
 

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