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High Society - the culture and history of mind-altering drugs

Mark Nesbitt
4 January 2011
Blog team: 
Kew's Economic Botany Collection has been a major lender of psychoactive plants to the Wellcome Collection's exhibition 'High Society'.

A lender or borrower be...

Lending objects to other museums is a great way of reaching wider audiences, as well as subtly increasing the botanical content of exhibitions. Museums don't usually charge to lend objects - in fact it's a true partnership, with both the borrowing and lending museums investing a lot of time in choosing, documenting and packaging objects. However the borrower does pay for transport, and any special mounts or display cases that are needed. 

2011 is going to see some important loans from the Economic Botany Collection, to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich (Basketry: Making Human Nature, opens 8 February 2011), on palms at the Botanical Garden in Berlin (Die Welt der Palmen, opens 20 May 2011), and to the innovative First Time Out exhibition created by five London museums (of which more in a later post, opens 20 January 2011).

Scarified capsules of opium poppy, one of the items on loan to the exhibition, from the India Museum (pre-1885). The latex, which oozes out of the longitudinal cuts, contains morphine. EBC 41265.

We have lent an important group of specimens to the Wellcome Collection's current exhibition High Society, which explores the culture, history and regulation of mind-altering drugs and is open until 27 February 2011. In preparing the loan, I was lucky to have help from a placement student from UCL's MA in Artefact Studies. Esmee van der Heijden did a great job of photographing, measuring and describing in minute detail all the artefacts that have gone on loan.  The meticulous preparation of condition reports before and after a loan enables us to assess appropriate packing for transport, and to record any changes that occur during exhibition.

Psychoactive plants

The most important artefact in the loan is a snuff set collected by Richard Spruce in 1855, at the Cataracts of Maypures in Venezuala.  Many tribes in South America make a hallucinogenic snuff from the seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina var. peregrina, a tree of savannas and plains. The ground-up seeds contain tryptamines that induce shamanic visions, such as flying, death and rebirth, and transformations into animals. Synthetic analogues of tryptamine have potential as so-called designer drugs, and as a result all tryptamines are Class A drugs and strictly controlled in the United Kingdom.

Snuff set collected by Richard Spruce in 1855

The roasted seeds (seen here in their pods) are ground on the mortar and pestle (A). The ground snuff (niopo) is kept in a tiger's bone (B), closed at one end with pitch, and at the other with a cork. The instrument for taking the snuff (C) is made of birds' bones. Two tubes end upwards in little black balls which are applied to the nostrils, while the single tube on which they unite at the lower end is dipped into the snuff.

The botanist Richard Spruce (1817-93) was one of the great plant collectors. He collected thousands of herbarium specimens and 300 artefacts during 15 years in the Amazon. This snuff set is usually on display in the Plants + People exhibition at Kew Gardens, and is one of our featured objects on the BBC History of the World website. Spruce's encounters with psychoactive plants also led him to investigate ayahuasca (prepared from the bark of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi) and coca (Erythroxylum coca).

Our loan to the exhibition includes some Banisteriopsis bark; a pituri bag from Australia, used for transporting the nicotine-rich powder of Duboisia hopwoodii; the scarified capsules of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), kava roots (Piper methysticum) from Fiji, and stems of peyote (Lophophora williamsii) from Mexico.

Visit the show

The High Society exhibition has brought together a remarkable range of drug-related objects and is well worth a visit. The Wellcome Collection is just opposite Euston station, in central London, and admission is free. In line with previous exhibitions there, interpretation is quite light touch, so be sure to pick up the A4 booklet which has the interpretation labels. There are lots of events (and a book) associated with the exhibition, including a tour focusing on the botany of psychoactive drugs, which I'll be giving on the evening of 20 January 2011.

- Mark -

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