Exhibit Review: The Devouring Element

color booklet for paint

For a long time, lead was added to paint for its moisture-resistant and quick drying properties. Lead paint has been banned since 1978 for residential use. (Mütter Museum, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Though lead exposure rates in American children have significantly decreased over the last 20 years, they have not entirely disappeared for any portion of the general population. As such, The Devouring Element pairs objects from the Mütter Museum’s collection of old medical specimens, tools, texts, and photographs with present-day items provided by the director of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, which along with PhillyHealthInfo.org collaborated on the exhibit. One of those pieces is a bowl in which sits a pile of mass-produced Mexican candies contaminated with lead. They were purchased last year. Hicks notes that after touring the exhibit, one museum patron realized she had those very candies at home. Other items included were purchased online. “$100 on eBay can buy you a lot of lead,” he jokes.

Curated in less than a month, The Devouring Element revels in juxtaposing antique and contemporary uses of lead. In a section on cosmetics, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth hangs on the wall. Lead was the primary ingredient in the white paint Elizabeth regularly applied to her face, and her ravaged appearance in her last years reflected the damage of lead poisoning. The idea that lead might be used as an ingredient in any modern cosmetic is shocking, yet underneath the portrait hangs a display box containing a Cleopatra-era Egyptian eyeliner pot as well as two tubes of recalled lipstick from a brand readily found on any drugstore shelf.

That isn’t to say this exhibit is solely a house of lead-related horrors. The collection makes obvious that lead has been integral to the advancement of our way of life as a cheap, readily accessible material. However, The Devouring Element’s primary message seems to be a warning—explicitly about the risks of lead exposure, but also more generally that there are hidden dangers lurking in many of the substances we regularly come in contact with. And while we debate whether the hazards of these exposures are of real significance, our bodies might very slowly be being similarly devoured.

Jennifer Dionisio is program associate for CHF's Roy Eddleman Institute and the book review and associate editor for Chemical Heritage.