High Society at the Wellcome Collection

According to their press release the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition High Society  “explores the role of mind-altering drugs in history and culture” and challenges “the perception that drugs are a disease of modern life”. Indeed, it was my impression that the exhibition did more than just challenge false historical assumption, it challenged the very notion of applying the word disease to drug use as some sort of catch-all understanding; one that fails time and again to notice the subtle, but often extraordinary, nuances of the human-drug relationship.

For a bookworm and literature researcher like myself there was both great joy and frustration at High Society. Joy in the fact that the exhibition included original, handwritten manuscripts of romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s purportedly opium inspired poem Kubla Khan and the drug classic, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Though, great frustration that these delicate papers were untouchable, unreadable behind glass cases. Regardless, however, they sat as they are, inspirations to generations and, if nothing else, a joy to behold. Besides these two, there is a plethora of other texts, both medical and literary, on display including one from 1618; Opiologia, or a treatise concerning the nature, properties, true preparation and administration of opium by Angelus Sala.

It isn’t only classic British artefacts on display, like original bottles of Thomas Sydenham’s classic opium and alcohol concoction Laudanum, but a selection that makes plain the use of drugs is trans-cultural, both in the sense that a High Society is a global trade but also in that nearly every unique culture has its methods of intoxication. There is a plethora of pipes on display (including one big enough to walk along, if one were allowed of course, which one isn’t,) prints depicting the trade of New World substances like tobacco, or the use of opium in the Far East. Yet set near these seemingly cultural normalities is the section on prohibition and watching a cocaine price and a cocaine purity line trade places over the Atlantic tells a startling tale about modernity. 

Although the film poster for the 1930s anti-cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness was, in a sense, a blood-curdling example of misinformation, there was also a dry, ironic comedy in its framing within the exhibition. With so many cultures on show that intimately knew their drugs and their relationship with their drugs, here was a shining example of the socially schizophrenic effect of prohibition, when knowledge is blurred by mass-media and a population is divided by statist moral agenda. Yet High Society manages to slip easily between the macro and the micro. Pictures like Henri Michaux’s ink-on-paper Dessin Mescalinien (1958) and images made by Jean-Martin Charcot under the influence of hashish, amply portray the deep and inward exploration of art, life and drugs, which is quite at odds with prohibition.

Of all the excellent displays however, it was printed drawings of, what at the time were unidentified, Psilocybe (magic) mushrooms in James Sowerby’s Coloured figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1803) that most aroused my imagination. There is a certain romantic innocence to those pictures, which speaks volumes of the equal place both plants and human’s have in this ecosphere we call Earth; regardless of how they are used. And, just as I was with those mushrooms, as I walked across the near sky-blue floor of High Society, I was struck by the groundedness of the whole exhibition. High Society is currently running at the Wellcome Collection, at 183 Euston Road, London until February 27th, 2011. Admission is free.


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  1. January 26, 2011

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