High Society at the Wellcome Collection

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Today a new exhibition opens at the Wellcome Collection looking at drugs. High Society is a typical show for the Wellcome: attending a preview yesterday, I found the idiosyncratic splicing of art, literature, medicine, social history and anthropology I’ve come to expect from the institution.

High Society’s claim is that every society is a high society: your early morning coffee is no different to drinking kava in the Pacific, chewing betel nuts in Asia, or coca leaves in the Andes. Time and geography produce different substances, but the use of drugs in society is universal, everyday, and stretches back through history.

And the very first display case sets the scene perfectly. Alongside a crude 21st-century crack pipe is an intricately carved pair of betel nut cutters from 19th-century India, and Chilean trays for hallucinogenic snuff dating back as far as 400AD.

Later, you can see an opium ball, about the same size as a baby’s head, from the 19th century; Mervyn Peake’s Caterpillar illustration from “Alice in Wonderland”; and bronze crack-pipe sculptures by Keith Coventry. There’s syringes, laudanum bottles, photos of magic mushrooms, NHS pamphlets for parents worried about drugs. And work by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, the original manuscripts of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey, a note on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes craving “mental exultation” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

Highlights for me included the incredibly modern-looking lithograph “Morphinomane” from 1897 by Eugène Grasset: pain and anguish stretch through the girl’s face as she drives a needle into her thigh. Delightfully silly is a coloured aquatint entitled “Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas”. Tracey Moffat’s hauntingly bleak “Laudanum” series of big, black and white photographs certainly make an impression. And the Joshua Light Show by Joshua White makes for a delightfully trippy museum moment.

Altering one’s mental state is a universal impulse, the exhibition suggests. The following sections, dedicated to Apothecary to Laboratory (tracing the history of early folk remedies to the garden shed where Alexander Shulgin made MDMA, or ecstasy), Collective Intoxication (looking at communal drug taking), and The Drugs Trade (mainly examining the Opium Wars) seeks to gently alter your state of mind about drugs as a whole.

Later, placing Prohibition posters alongside what modern society deems to be “harder” or “illegal” drugs poses many questions. The final section, called  A sin, a crime, a vice or a disease? after a quote by the British doctor Norman Kerr in 1884, doesn’t seek to find answers, and you’re sure to leave this thought-provoking exhibition with the issues High Society raises whirling in your mind.

High Society is at the Wellcome Collection until 27 February. Look out for the brilliant-sounding High Society Events Programme. More exhibits from the show can be see on The Guardian website.


  1. John Marks says: