drug abuse through the ages

Drug Abuse Through the Ages – High Society at Wellcome Collection

The United Nations recently estimated that the illicit drug trade is worth at least $320 billion per annum (£200bn). It looks as if society is engaged on an all time ‘high’, not just on drugs, but on tea, coffee and alcohol, mood-altering substances which we take for granted.

Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture

High Society is curated by author/historian Mike Jay, together with Caroline Fisher and Emily Sargent of the Wellcome Collection.

The exhibition charts the history of drugs and their plant origins; their use as medicines; and how mind-altering substances, such as ecstasy (MDMA), have been synthetically recreated and marketed.

The use of psychoactive substances is not a new phenomenon; the ancient Egyptians used poppy tinctures and the Victorians had their cocaine eye drops. Sherlock Holmes had his opium, and it is said that Alice’s bizarre adventures in Wonderland show the effects of drug abuse.

High Society presents more than two hundred items including drawings, paintings, sculptures, books and manuscripts. The display also features specially commissioned installations including a recreation of the Joshua Light Show (Joshua White/Seth Kirby). White is well-known for the psychedelic backdrops he created for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

High Society – Layout of the Exhibition

High Society is set out in six clearly delineated sections:

  • A Universal Impulse explores society’s attitude to drugs. For example, a substance might be regarded as a public health problem in one country, but may be perfectly acceptable elsewhere.
  • From Apothecary to Laboratory looks at drugs, such as cocaine, opium, heroin and cannabis, which are derived from plants and used as medicines throughout history. Centuries ago opium was recognised as an effective painkiller and remains the main ingredient in many of today’s prescriptions. The exhibition looks at both the legal, and illegal, uses of opium, as well as the signs and symptoms of abuse, as recorded by numerous artists. De Historia Stirpivm, by Leonhard Fuchs (Basel, 1542), is a herbal, written in Latin, in which the author describes each plant in detail. The page shows a cannabis plant.
  • Self-experimentation explains how the majority of medicines are tested on animals and their affects proven in a laboratory. However, the affects of recreational drugs can only be described by their users. In the 19th Century many new drugs were discovered through self-experimentation and there was a fine line between entertainment and scientific research! The exhibition features the manuscript Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (ca. 1797-1804). Coleridge was known to use opium, usually in the form of laudanum, and claimed to have written this poem while under the influence of the drug.
  • Collective Intoxication demonstrates how drug use, and abuse, is so often a communal activity. 420 Day at the University of Colorado, (Mark Leffingwell), shows a mass ‘smoke-in’ as part of 4:20 celebrations. Celebrated annually on 20th April, 4:20 day is a counter-culture holiday closely linked to the campaign to legalise cannabis.
  • The Drugs Trade relates how the opium trade played a major part in the British Empire’s rise during the 19th Century.
  • A Sin, a Crime, a Vice or a Disease? This question was asked as long ago as 1884 by Dr. Norman Kerr. Defining the nature of drug abuse has always been problematic, as has deciding how to deal with it. High Society looks at the situation in the UK where substance abusers tend to be medicalised and substances are subject to a variety of legal statuses.

The exhibition concludes that however substance abuse is treated, little can be done to control the market for illegal narcotics.

High Society – Exhibition Catalogue

High Society is accompanied by a 192-page catalogue entitled High Society Mind-altering Drugs in History and Culture. Written by Mike Jay, and featuring150 colour illustrations, the publication provides a detailed history of mind-altering drugs around the world. (ISBN 978 0 500 251720, Thames & Hudson Ltd.)

High Society will be open until 27th February 2018 and further information is available from the Wellcome Collection.

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