For much of human history, poisoning—whether by accident or malice—was much more common than it is today. To protect against the threat, people turned to a variety of natural and man-made materials that were thought to expose toxic substances early warning systems prized for their life-saving potential.
The artifact above is an example of one of these protective objects. It is a hornbill spoon, which, according to Malaysian legend, would change color, even turn black, in the presence of poison. Now on view in the Museum’s special exhibition The Power of Poison, this spoon was fashioned from the beak of a Rufous Hornbill (Buceros hydrocorax), a large bird indigenous to the Philippines and characterized, like all hornbills, by a prominent casque or horny growth extending along the top of its head.