The River Online examines cultural history of mind-altering substances at London's Wellcome Collection.

Taking a ‘trip’ through a High Society

London’s Wellcome Collection describes its venue as “a free visitor destination for the incurably curious” and its High Society installation was certainly no exception.

Every society throughout history has been a ‘high’ society, at least so claim its curators, attempting to document the central position mind-altering substances have held in cultures dating from as far back as recorded history began right through to the modern day.

Author and cultural historian Mike Jay, co-curator, said of the exhibition: “We’ve been able to draw on a wide range of material from across disciplines, creating an exhibition that invites the visitor to question our modern attitudes in the light of other times and cultures.”

The usual suspects associated with drug-induced creativity make their presence felt, original manuscripts of the opium inspired Romantic poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Also present are the heroes of the 60s psychedelic movement. A private collector, who unsurprisingly decided to remain anonymous, donated a collection of original acid blotters signed by the folk-heroes of the turn on, tune in, drop out counter-culture aesthetic of the 60s. Signatories included Aldous Huxley, author of the cult classic The Doors of Perception, from which acid-rock band The Doors took their name.

The exhibtion’s trippy atmosphere is reinforced with a variety of multimedia installations, including a recreation of the ‘Joshua Light Show’ by Joshua White (see video below), who created experimental psychedelic visuals for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

However, for the more inquisitive, the collection moves beyond the clichés and hackneyed stereotypes of hippies, stoners and junkies to a world predating these concepts.

The exhibition moves chronologically through the sacramental hallucinogenic rituals of ancient cultures and the Native Americans to Sigmund Freud’s experiments exploring the potentials of drugs in the expansion of consciousness and the release of the sub-concious.

While cynics may feel that the exhibtion is simply pandering to the titilations of an immature audience, the aim of High Society is a desire to alter the perception that drug taking is a modern phenemenon and an enemy against which war must be waged. Indeed, the transient nature of Western society’s attitude to drugs forms a central tenet of the exhibition.

‘The Drugs Trade’ section of the exhibition documents the change in British policy from the mid-19th century when one of the country’s most profitable exports was Indian grown opium, smuggled illegally into China, a contrast with modern western intervention in countries like Afghanistan and South America.

The 19th century was also a time when opium and cocaine were readily available as health supplements in high street druggists across the country, yet by the early part of the 20th century they had been criminalised.

High Society sets about to examine the motives behind current attitudes towards drugs, through the rise of the temperance and prohibition movements which came to prominence over a century ago.

Whatever our individual opinions on this often controversial subject, High Society offers an insightful alternative to the conventional and often hyperbolic discourse surrounding drugs. 

For a more in depth look into the subject, Mike Jay, co-curator of the exhibition, has released a book entitled High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture.

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