If you happen to be in London, this may be interesting. The Wellcome Trust has an exhibition running until February called High Society, exploring “the role of mind-altering drugs in history and culture”, which challenges “the perception that drugs are a disease of modern life”.
From ancient Egyptian poppy tinctures to Victorian cocaine eye drops, Native American peyote rites to the salons of the French Romantics, mind-altering drugs have a rich history. ‘High Society’ will explore the paths by which these drugs were first discovered – from apothecaries’ workshops to state-of-the-art laboratories – and how they came to be simultaneously fetishised and demonised in today’s culture.
Mind-altering drugs have been used in many ways throughout history – as medicines, sacraments and status symbols, to investigate the brain, inspire works of art or encounter the divine, or simply as an escape from the experience.
Exhibits will include: Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ manuscript, said to have been written after an opium dream; a hand-written manuscript by Captain Thomas Bowrey describing his crew’s experiments with Bhang – a cannabis drink – in 17th-century Bengal; a bottle of cocaine eye drops; and a hallucinogenic snuff set collected in the Amazon by the Victorian explorer Richard Spruce. The exhibition will also feature contemporary art pieces exploring drug use and culture, including Tracy Moffat’s Laudanum portrait series and a recreation of the Joshua Light Show by Joshua White and Seth Kirby.
With the exhibition comes a nice-looking book, High Society. Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, by one of the curators, historian Mike Jay, that “explores the spectrum of mind-altering substances across the globe and throughout history”.
From the opening chapter, “The Universal Impulse”:
Every society on earth is a high society. As the sun rises in the east, caffeine is infused and sipped across China in countless forms of dried, smoked and fermented tea. From the archipelagos of Indonesia and New Guinea through Thailand, Burma and India, a hundred million chewers of betel prepare their quids of areca nut, pepper leaf and caustic lime ash, press it between their teeth and expectorate the day’s first mouthful of crimson saliva. Across the cities of Thailand, Korea and China, potent and illicit preparations such as ya’aba, home-cooked amphetamine pills swallowed or smoked, propel a young generation through the double working shifts of economic boomtime, or burn up the empty hours of unemployment, before igniting the clubs and bars of the urban nightscape.
As the sun tracks across towards the afternoon, the rooftop terraces of Yemen’s medieval mud-brick cities fill with men gathering to converse and chew khat through the scorching heat of the day. Across the concrete jungles of the Middle East, millions without the means for a midday meal make do with a heap of sugar stirred into a small cup of strong black tea. As the working day in Europe draws to a close, the traffic through the bars of the city squares begins to pick up, and high-denomination euro notes are surreptitiously exchanged for wraps of cocaine and ecstasy.
Mike Jay introducing the book and the exhibition: