Press release

High Society

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 February
Press preview: Wednesday 10 November, 09.30-13.00
A chance to preview the exhibition and meet with the curators. 
Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
Admission FREE

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 past.

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 being ourselves.

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.