High Society Rules

Fifteen stops on the Piccadilly line did nothing to shake off the twinges of my subtle hangover. The bracing air on the short walk from King’s Cross to the Wellcome Collection picked me up a bit, and the calm, quiet exhibition space brought the world back into full focus. How appropriate that I was visiting High Society, the new Wellcome display about “mind-altering drugs in history and culture.”

High Society’s not a whizzbang affair, though there are a few multimedia displays, which I dare say, would best be viewed under the influence. The real value in this exhibition is in the detail: there’s everything from footage of an MP taking mescaline for a science experiment to a photographic essay of the descent into laudanum-induced haze.

The old books, in particular, offer some golden nuggets for the sharp-eyed visitor. My personal favourite, as an Aussie, was discovering in a 1797 selfhelp guide that the punishment of being shipped off to Botany Bay (Australia’s original penal colony) ranked just above the gallows as a penalty for drinking spirits “morning … day and night”.

High Society makes for an entertaining couple of hours, best enjoyed with a slice of self-reflection and, if that’s not available, an open mind to the wonders and dangers of psychotropic exploration.

The High Society Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection runs until 27 February.
Homepage of the High Society Exhibition

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