10 August 2010
Wellcome Collection explores the role
of mind-altering drugs in history and culture with its latest
exhibition, ‘High Society’, challenging the perception that drugs
are a disease of modern life.
High Society: 11 November-27
Press preview: Wednesday 10 November, 09.30-13.00
chance to preview the exhibition and meet with the curators.
Contact Tim Morley for details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
With the illicit drug trade estimated by the
UN at $320 billion (£200bn) a year and new drugs constantly
appearing on the streets and the internet, it can seem as if we are
in the grip of an unprecedented level of addiction. Yet the use of
psychoactive drugs is nothing new, and indeed our most familiar
ones - alcohol, coffee, tobacco - have all been illegal in the
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 of
Mike Jay, co-curator of 'High Society',
comments: "The drug experience has been as widely documented by
artists and writers as by scientists and medics, often inspired by
their personal subjective experiences. 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."
Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at
Wellcome Collection, adds: "With UN reports highlighting an
overall increase in the illicit use of drugs, both in the West and
across the developing world, 'High Society' offers a timely insight
to the shifting landscape of this contentious subject matter."
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.
'High Society' is co-curated by author and
historian Mike Jay and Wellcome Collection's Caroline Fisher and
Emily Sargent. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated
book on the culture and history of mind-altering drugs by Mike Jay,
published by Thames and Hudson.
A lively programme of events will take place
in Wellcome Collection to coincide with the 'High Society'
exhibition. Mostly free, these events include discussions on the
experience of drug taking and how it has been described in
literature and science, the definition of 'drugs' across different
cultures, and stories of famous and infamous drug users of the
past. There will also be a series of interactive, participatory
events with relevant food and music. Full details will be announced
in autumn 2010.
Media Officer (Wellcome Trust)
T 020 7611 7262
Notes to editors
Mike Jay is an author and historian who has
written widely on the history of science and medicine, and is a
specialist in the study of drugs and their cultures. His books on
the subject include 'Artificial Paradises: A drugs reader' (1999),
'Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the nineteenth century' (2000) and
the widely acclaimed 'The Atmosphere of Heaven' (2009), on the
discovery of laughing gas by radical scientists and Romantic poets
in 18th-century Bristol.
Wellcome Collection is a
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