'High Society' opens today

‘High Society’ is now open in Wellcome Collection, running until 27 February 2011.

Every society is a high society. From morning coffee in European cities to kava in Pacific villages, betel nut in Asia to coca leaf in the Andes, the rituals of drug use are everyday and universal, and stretch back through centuries. Wellcome Collection's major winter exhibition, 'High Society', explores the role of mind-altering drugs in history and culture, challenging the perception that drugs are a disease of modern life.

Over 200 exhibits are on display, including: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' manuscript, allegedly written after an opium dream; NASA experiments with intoxicated spiders; a handwritten account by Captain Thomas Bowrey describing his crew's experiments with bhang (a cannabis drink) in 17th-century Bengal; an 11th-century manuscript with poppy remedies written by monks in Suffolk; and a hallucinogenic snuff set collected in the Amazon by the Victorian explorer Richard Spruce. The exhibition also features contemporary art pieces exploring drug use and culture, including Tracy Moffat’s 'Laudanum' portrait series, a recreation of the 'Joshua Light Show' by Joshua White, who created psychedelic backdrops for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin; and an installation work by Huang Yong Ping.

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, used variously as medicines, sacraments, trade goods, routes to the divine or creative muses. 'High Society' opens with 'A Universal Impulse', recording the common drive to incorporate psychoactive substances into our everyday lives. 'From Apothecary to Laboratory' traces the path from the earliest folk remedies through the laboratories of the early 19th century to the garden shed in which Alexander Shulgin synthesised the compound MDMA (ecstasy).

'Self-Experimentation' follows both scientists' and artists' first-hand experience of drugs as they looked for different kinds of enlightenment. Figures such as Mordecai Cooke, Sigmund Freud and Humphry Davy are joined by Thomas De Quincey and Charles Baudelaire, united in a desire to expand and describe the further horizons of reality. 'Collective Intoxication' explores communal drug rites from tribal ritual to mass protests, while 'The Drugs Trade' focuses on the often violent global passage of drugs, following the Opium Wars of 1839-60 when the British Empire rose to dominance by mass-producing opium in India and smuggling it into China, where it was officially banned. Finally, 'A Sin, a Crime, a Vice or a Disease?' surveys the temperance and prohibition movements that created the framework for our drug laws today.

Mike Jay, co-Curator of 'High Society', says: "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."

Clare Matterson, Director of Wellcome Collection, says: "Wellcome Collection is uniquely placed to encourage debate about the connections between medical science, the arts and our everyday lives. 'High Society' draws together a rich collection of material which makes us look afresh at an enduringly addictive subject."

Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, says: "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."

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 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. With a spectacular and wide-ranging array of paintings, artefacts, documents, sculpture and video, 'High Society' explores how drugs, and the impulse to extend our experience of ordinary life, came to be simultaneously fetishised and demonised in today's culture.

'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 of the same name by Mike Jay, published by Thames and Hudson on 8 November 2010.