High Society is high impact and high interest

by Katy Barrett

I am writing this review while drinking a cup of coffee in the café of the Wellcome Collection. I would never think of myself as a ‘drug user,’ but the current exhibition High Society reminds us that caffeine is just one of the mind-altering substances which are prevalent in all human societies.

From an opening case of evocative objects – including a Starbucks cup and a Coke can – that draws on the wealth of the Wellcome’s own collections, the exhibition marshals items from ancient Assyrian cuneiform tablets to modern art installations by Richard Hamilton and Keith Coventry to investigate the wide range of ways in which we get ‘high.’ It draws on ceramics, natural specimens, books, prints, paintings, photographs; political advertising, scientific experiments, art installations, interviews to show just how ancient and varied human drug use is. It considers the boundaries between public and private, social and anti-social, legal and illegal. I, in fact, use the term ‘drug’ with trepidation, in case it lead my readers to a culturally-induced ‘pejorative’ understanding of the term which this exhibition by no means endorses.

The opening section ‘A Universal Impulse’ highlights this problem and shows the varying types and functions of drugs in different cultures, considering religious or medical use, and the modern clash between these and international law. Next, ‘From Apothecary to Laboratory’ considers the development from ancient medical plants to modern laboratory drugs and the local and international paths of these. Connected is ‘The Drugs Trade’ section, which reminds us of the ever-present role of British imperial trade and expansion in so much world history, and the importance of the opium trade from India to China in the nineteenth century.

The section on ‘Self-Experimentation’ investigates how scientists and artists have sought to understand what drugs do to the human consciousness and why this varies between individuals; how essentially the results evade complete scientific explanation. The installation by Brion Gysin invites visitors to give themselves a hallucinatory experience. ‘Collective Intoxication’ then considers how drug use is part of social interaction, using and contrasting Western attitudes to more ‘ritualistic’ drug use in other cultures. The final section considers whether drug use is ‘A sin, a crime, a vice, or a disease?’ highlighting how such boundaries change across communities, and have shifted over time along with attitudes to the human mind and body and the relationship between the two.

This exhibition is the Wellcome Collection’s usual high quality and high impact. On a grey Saturday afternoon it was heaving with enthusiastic visitors, showing that the subject is as ‘high’ interest today as the exhibition shows that it has been in the past.

‘High Society’ continues until 27th February 2011 with special events on ‘Drugs in Victorian Britain’ on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th February.

Katy Barrett is a PhD Student on the AHRC-funded research project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World‘ supervised jointly by the University of Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. She is currently interested in the relationships that were drawn between lunacy and the search for longitude in the early eighteenth century.

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  1. As a student nurse in the mid 80′s I did an assignment on substance use and abuse and chose to do caffeine. It was very interesting reading some of the newspaper articles of the 18th century (?) concerning people addicted to caffeine leaving their families and jobs to pursue their addiction. Articles that discussed the warning signs of addiction – shakes, headache and tremors with withdrawal etc. Has always made me think twice about addictions and substances that are addictive.
    I would love to see the exhibition but am in Australia so sadly not an option for me at this point in time.

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