East India Company

Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture

Published in History Today
Heroin Bottle
High Society
Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture
Wellcome Collection
* * * * *
Until February 27th, 2011
183 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE
Telephone: 020 7611 8888
www.wellcome.ac.uk

When Arthur Conan Doyle published The Sign of Four in 1890, he supplied Sherlock Holmes with a fashionable recreational drug habit: injecting not only cocaine but also morphine. ‘I abhor the dull routine of existence’, Holmes tells a disapproving Dr Watson. ‘I crave for mental exultation’. But in the later Holmes stories, published at the turn of the century, the great detective’s use of drugs is not mentioned. By then, Watson had weaned Holmes off the habit; at the same time, not by coincidence, medical and popular opinion had turned against cocaine. In 1914 the US government introduced the term narcotic to cover all illegal drugs, including stimulants like cocaine, and limited their official sale to medical purposes.

A century later the illicit drug trade is estimated by the United Nations at US$350 billion a year, making it one of the three largest international markets, along with arms and oil. This is certainly a grim statistic with which to end High Society, the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition on drugs. But it would be wrong to give the impression that this engaging exhibition dwells puritanically on the harmful effects and prohibition of drugs. In fact, it makes a constant effort to be balanced: if not exactly to celebrate drugtaking, at least to show us the richness and variety of drug cultures throughout history, going back to the Babylonians and no doubt pre-literate societies. ‘Mind-altering substances answer the deep desire – need, even – we have to enhance and extend our ordinary experience of life’, accepts the Wellcome’s Ken Arnold in his foreword to the excellent, highly illustrated book associated with the exhibition written by Mike Jay, one of its curators.

Thus the opening showcase, labelled ‘A Universal Impulse’, is an intriguing medley of over 50 objects used in drug-taking. Some are quite exotic, for example an 18th-century coconut kava bowl from Fiji, a 19thcentury opium pipe from China and a highly decorated 19th-century brass betel-nut cutter from India. Others are as familiar and contemporary as a wine glass, an ashtray and a takeaway coffee cup.

Much space is devoted to the consumption of opium and its ramifications, in economics, politics, literature, music and the visual arts. So far as I recall from my school history course in the 1970s, the inglorious Opium Wars – inadvertently recalled by David Cameron’s insistence on wearing a Remembrance Day poppy while visiting China – were completely neglected in my formal education. Without any national self-flagellation, the exhibition reminded me why. An unintentionally shocking British lithograph of a busy opium warehouse in Patna, India, in 1850, has large balls of opium stacked from floor to ceiling, awaiting shipment by clipper to China. An adjacent installation created by the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping in 2008 in response to this lithograph, shows a massive opium pipe like the barrel of a long cannon with a pile of opium ‘cannon balls’, one of which has apparently knocked over the inebriated figure of Lord Palmerston, the opium-tradesupporting foreign secretary behind the British attack. Entitled Frolic, the installation is witty and thought provoking, not propagandistic. It returns to the mind near the end of the exhibition, when one stands contemplatively among opium poppies growing in contemporary Afghanistan.

The discussion of alcohol, including the temperance movement and Prohibition in America in the 1920s, is less satisfactory, perhaps inevitably given the overwhelming prevalence of alcohol consumption and the conflicting views about drunkenness. A century or more ago, the British doctor Norman Kerr, who founded the Society for the Study of Inebriety, asked if inebriation was ‘a sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?’– the title of the last section of the exhibition. We are still, as a society, trying to come up with an answer to this question.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X