Review of ‘High Society’ at the Wellcome Collection – guest post

Unfortunately this exhibition has now closed, but this review by Dr Lisa Conlan is still well worth reading.  It was originally featured in the London Division March 2011 newsletter.  Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

‘Every society is a high society’ is the tagline of this topical and playful exhibition. ‘High Society’ challenges the status quo that we live in an era of unprecedented levels of drug addiction, that it is a very modern disease. With billions spent yearly on the ‘war against drugs’ and UN estimates putting the yearly turnover of the illicit drugs trade at $320 billion (£200bn), it’s easy to see where this idea comes from. In fact, as this exhibition sets out to demonstrate, addiction is nothing new and psychoactive experimentation, rather than a minority activity, is something of a universal experience. Using historical relics, paintings and commissioned installations, ‘High Society’ charts humanity’s long and intimate relationship with mind-altering substances, licit and illicit, be it caffeine, alcohol, kava root, opium, cocaine eye drops. You name it, this exhibition has got it.

The first part takes a brief but broadly historical look at drug use and trade through the ages, focusing on the important role opium trade played in the 19th century in the development of the British Empire. As tea increased in price and the British ran out of silver to exchange for it, the East India Trading Company sanctioned the mass manufacture of opium in India to trade for it; actively establishing, promoting and fostering opium addiction in China. 

A good part of the exhibition is given to an anthropological overview of drugs, from ritual kava ceremonies in Polynesia to Native American peyote. Colourful US Prohibition-era posters hint at the current debate on legalisation but sadly, this theme is explored no further. There are featured original manuscripts including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Paintings and photographs are used to good effect, in particular, Keith Coventry’s haunting photographs of gaunt crack addicts. Fun installation pieces recreated the dizzying experience of being high, my favourite being Rodney Graham’s comical acid-fuelled bicycle ride to a Pink Floyd soundtrack. Some interesting film and video excerpts were featured, including Jonathan Miller’s wonderful and enchanting BBC version of Alice in Wonderland, 1966, shot as if in the haze of a drug-fuelled dream (or perhaps a nightmare).

My main criticism of the exhibition was the lack of decent explanatory material. For example, there was brilliant video footage of the landmark late 1970s experiment by Bruce Alexander, known as ‘Rat Park’, but little, in fact, almost no notes to aid the viewer to make sense of it. This is a shame because it was a landmark addiction experiment, which challenged the orthodox theory of addiction, still very current in addiction research and treatment today, that dependency is a property of the drug itself. Alexander, who worked with addicts for years as a clinician, thought dependency was more about social and environmental factors than the intrinsic power of the drug itself.

Briefly, for anyone who’s interested, the experiment consisted of caged rats versus rats in a park called ‘Rat Park’. Rat Park was a large plywood construction designed so rats could roam free with ample space for social interaction and play, food, and nests for raising young. Both sets had the choice between morphine-laced water or tap water. Despite many attempts and variations on the experiment, Alexander could not make addicts of the rat park rats. The caged rats preferentially took the morphine solution and became dependent, while the rats in Rat Park overwhelmingly preferred water. In one variation, Alexander exploited the fact that rats are very partial to sweet things by adding sugar to the morphine solution (morphine has a bitter taste). As before, the caged rats preferentially drank morphine but, in general, the rat park rats snubbed it for water. It was only when naloxone was added to the water that the rat park residents started drinking the sweet morphine water. In another striking variation, Alexander transferred addicted caged rats into the Rat Park to see what would happen. The transferred rats mostly took up tap water instead of morphine, suffering mild withdrawals only. Alexander concluded that in optimal social conditions, the rats did not want anything that would interfere with their normal social interaction and attachment. Alexander’s theory was that it was not an inherent property of the drug that led to dependency but social and environmental deprivation and distress. Alexander could not get his work published in Nature or Science and it was later published in the minor journal, Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, and failed to have any impact. It’s interesting to note that this experiment was replicated on a human scale (this wasn’t in the exhibition by the way) when the Vietnam veterans returned to the USA. Thousands had severe heroin dependency but back in their home environments most just stopped using when they returned home, also suffering only mild withdrawals.

So, despite the general lack of explanatory text, High Society was a stimulating, fun and thought-provoking exhibition.

High Society website

High society: Mind altering drugs in history and culture by Mike Jay

Dr Lisa Conlan, General Adult psychiatrist, currently in an Addiction Post

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