Last-minute changes of plan are always good for a laugh, as I discovered on Friday when the event upon which I had anchored my weekend was moved. I shook my fist and generally cursed the fates until I received a call from Izzi asking if I’d like to go to see the High Society exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.
The Wellcome Collection is a real oddity. I never know quite how to describe it to someone not already familiar with it. Describing itself as “a free destination for the incurably curious,” it’s part museum, part art gallery. The basic theme is medicine, human biology and their position in society. There are sculptures, art installations and historical artefacts relating to these themes. Its purpose seems to be to make you think rather than to supply you with information – there is no explanatory text beyond basic captions for most of the exhibits.
The High Society exhibition is the Wellcome Collection’s exploration of mind-altering substances. I hesitate to use the word “drugs” because one of the points the exhibition makes is that one man’s drug is another man’s mainstream stimulant. In this country, alcohol is generally considered to be a perfectly acceptable substance, provided you don’t make a tit of yourself. In many cultures, it’s considered to be four-star Satan fuel. Is the go-getter who takes a quadruple espresso to wake them up in the morning any worse than the stoner who lights a joint to relax? These are the questions the exhibition invites you to think about.
At the start of the exhibition, we’re presented with a load of drug paraphernalia, for the broadest definition of “drug.” As well as syringes and bongs, we see coffee and absinthe (which, incidentally, is nowhere near as crazy as it’s made out to be). We then go on a tour of drugs in medicine, in self-exploration, in social interaction and in law. We see prohibition posters, photos of pro-drug rallies, psychedelic light shows, tribal rituals, paintings and books, grouped by theme but not necessarily by stance or source.
No attempt is made at any kind of moral judgment, except that portrayed within the works themselves. The overriding message seems to be that nobody knows who’s right. We see that views on drugs depend who you are, where you are and when. The Victorians thought nothing of giving opiates to help baby sleep. In the Andes, coca tea is a popular cure for altitude sickness, seen as being no worse than regular tea over here. In the USA, coca leaf means cocaine (and Coca-Cola, but that tends to get glossed over when they take the moral high ground and spray defoliant over every back garden coca plot). Maybe none of us are right. Maybe Bob Dylan was right, and everybody should get stoned.
It certainly got Izzi and me talking. Like many people, I’ve done my share of experimentation, and Izzi’s done a lot more than me. I rather wish I hadn’t been talking about this experimentation so loudly, as while I was doing so I looked up and discovered that, by a million-to-one chance, my boss was attending the same exhibition. Shit.
Anyway, yeah, both Izzi and I are fairly liberal on the subject of drugs. Speaking personally, I think there’s quite a lot that could or should be legalised. I think it’s hypocritical that I could get in legal trouble for possessing a couple of joints’ worth of cannabis, but I could then drink two bottles of whisky and seriously endanger my life with no legal intervention whatsoever. Quite apart from such moral considerations, there’s the practical fact that with certain substances legalised, they can be taxed and policed more effectively.
But maybe I’m wrong as well. I invite you to take a trip (har har) to the Wellcome Collection to see for yourself. High Society runs until 27th February, entrance is free and it’s just a short walk from Euston and Euston Square stations. It might expand your mind.
http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/high-society.aspx – The official website