Geoffrey Kaye Museum: From Snake Oil to Science

Today I returned to the Geoffrey Kaye Museum to visit my supervisor and see the new exhibition – From Snake Oil to Science: the Development and Labelling of Pharmaceuticals for the Treatment of Pain. It was such a fantastic day filled with much needed catch ups and some work!

I am going to dedicate this blog post to the new exhibition. From Snake Oil to Science contained an absolute wealth of information as well as some pretty unique objects. Although on display in a small space, every inch has been utilised to tell the stories of treating pain. The first thing you notice are the four large pictures on the wall. Three portray a theme (botanicals, science, and pharmaceuticals) and one displays the title of the exhibition. They are simply stunning and really enhanced the space! Each has a small thematic panel and shelf attached displaying a few related objects.



Beneath each picture is a set of drawers with a clear display box on top. Objects are not only contained within the box, but also in the pull out drawers. According to curator Monica Cronin, the drawers can all contain their own individual and complete stories relating to the larger themes. For example, there is a separate drawer on cocaine and one on heroin.

The drawers are also very effective in preventing visitor fatigue. You can focus on the main stories presented on the thematic panels and objects in the glass boxes. If you want to read or see more, you can open the drawers and have a look inside. Each object label was easy to read and contained a fair amount of information. I felt as though it was enough to provide a great general overview without being too overwhelming.

Selecting my favourite object was a difficult task because they were all so interesting. Highlights included a poster for cough medicine containing heroin and a handwritten formula for cough syrup from the mid-20th century. However, what really excited me was a bottle of ergot. For those who don’t know, I completed my history thesis in 2014 focusing on the Salem Witch Trials. Ergot poisoning is one of the suggested theories as to why Salem residents experienced fits etc. Seeing this object was actually a wonderful connection for me and something I did not expect to come across! It was in the exhibition as it was once used to control postpartum haemorrhaging.


The entire exhibition was fascinating and it was truly insightful to see how pain has been managed over the years and the differences/similarities between cultures. That was another thing I loved about the exhibition – objects covered more than one culture.

I found myself reading through every drawer. It most definitely made me question what kinds of medication I take to manage pain now and what I could have been taking in the past!

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