High Society, at the Wellcome Trust


London’s Wellcome Trust, home to a huge collection of more than a million medical artefacts and curios collected by Henry Wellcome, has once again dug into its archive and come up with an interesting, accessible, thought-provoking and free exhibition on “what it means to be human”. After their focus on Skin last summer, this endeavour fixates on narcotics, or how “every society on Earth is a high society”. The cultural use of, and acceptance of, a range of drugs is examined and considered – and a number of home truths emerge. Pictured: ‘Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas’ coloured aquatint by T. Rowlandson (1823)

The first section of the exhibition establishes what most of us know but which still benefits from emphasis: the prevalence of narcotics in every aspect of our lives and in every culture worldwide. From caffeine and painkillers to opium and coca leaves, and aparently they’ve all been illegal at some point. Cocaine was a common ingredient in the over-the-counter medicines of the 19th-20th centuries, illustrated in the line-up by a “voice compound, containing cocaine, 1952”.

The next thing to become clear, which really we’ve known all along, is that in the setting of luxury and decadence, drugs seem acceptable, even aspirational; set against poverty they seem desperate, desolate and very much an uncontrollable addiction. This is illustrated by the coloured aquatint by T. Rowlandson in 1823 depicting “Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas” in what looks like a jolly old evening for the upper-class. A photograph of a San Francisco opium den appears far more bleak a situation. However the most effective comparison is a 19th century portrait of two rich opium eaters above its partner portrait of two poor opium eaters. The wealthy pair recline in comfort, inhaling the drug with an enviable sense of tranquility while the poor lie on a bare wooden table looking decrepit and hopeless, dressed in rags.

“Opium was by for centuries the most effective painkiller in the physician’s repertoire and went on to become the main ingredient in many patented medicines. Its addictive properties were always well known.”

I found all of this narrative fascinating: “Cannabis is native to central Asia but was known in Europe by the time of the ancient Greeks. The use of coca leaves was widespread in South America and witnessed by the Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century,  but Europeans saw tobacco as the most useful of the New World drugs. Cocaine was not synthaesised from coca leaf until the nineteenth century.” I had no idea that each drug was so comparatively recent in its importation. No wonder we drank so much beer before they all hit our shores.

The patented medicine bottles on show are predictably beautiful: stout amber apothecary bottles with faded brown labels and cork toppers proclaim themselves to be “Gripe cordial” (I’d drink that now if offered but it’s actually from England c.1900), Scragg’s Baby Carma, Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral (advertised by an illustration of two young children frolicking around an oversized cherry-adorned bottle which contains significant quantities of opium).

After the bottles, another reminder that some of the most beautiful and intricately-crafted objects are associated with the tools and kits of addiction comes in the form of hypodermic syringe and spare needle in a silver, velvet-lined case: from Paris, 1850-1900.

The most visually arresting documentation of the effects of drugs is on show towards the end of the exhibition: three large prints of NASA’s studies of spiderwebs, created by spiders previously exposed to different types of narcotic. Benzedrine, caffeine and marijuana were all used in the 1993 study, and the results are breathtaking. Benzedrine’s web is intricate in the centre, spreading out into wide expanses; Caffeine’s web is hugely erratic with lines skipping all over the place, and Marojuana’s is quite faceted, resembling nothing so much as a work of abstract art.

A sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?

This section of the exhibition presents the three basic approaches of drug control regimes, which are the same today as they have been since drug control attempts began in the late 19th century –  education, medicalisation and criminalisation. It proceeds to give examples of each of the three directions, all implemented with varying levels of success. Prohibition wasn’t exactly a success story, for one thing, a fact which is illustrated concisely by an ingenious cigar case secretly containing flasks for alcohol (US, 1920s).

A poster from Prohibition-era cautions “All Wine Contains Alcohol”, going on to affirm that it disorders “nerve control of the body, reason, will, self-control, morals”. Binge Britain stares back at it, missing its point: ‘those are negatives?’

Arguably most powerful is the exhibition’s parting shot, a wall-long infographic by David McCandless called ‘Pure as the Driven Snow’. The graphic charts the rising cost and decreasing purity of cocaine as it is harvested, smuggled, stashed, cut and distributed.  From peasant farmer, who is paid $0.3/g (or £210/kg) to the moment at which the drug hits the street for $100/g (or £45,000/kg). To put it another way, from wholesale dealer to street dealer, the price hikes 80% – from traffickers to importers the price hikes 600%. Purity by street level is 27%.

In an exhibition widely praised by critics as refreshingly open-minded in its attitude to its subject matter, however, the parting shot has to be balanced. The final page of the exhibition guide contains a quote from Mordecai Cooke in 1860. And this shall be my parting shot, too, because who can resist a bit of romance?

“To all lovers of tobacco, in all parts of the world, juvenile and senile, masculine and feminine; to all abstainers, voluntary and involuntary; to all the slaves of the opium poppy, at home and abroad; whether experiencing the pleasures, or pains of the seductive drug; to all haschischans, east and west, in whatsoever form they choose – to woo the spirit of dreams.”

The exhibition runs until 27 Februrary 2011.

High Society, at the Wellcome Trust