LONDON – So you think drug culture began at Woodstock in the 1960s? Think again.
A massive bong statue spanning the length of a room, the laudanum-induced 'Kubla Khan' manuscript and psychedelic videos in a riot of color await those curious enough to learn about 3,500 years' worth of human drug use.
"High Society," an exhibition opening Thursday at London's Wellcome Collection museum, examines the controversial history of opium, from pre-biblical practices to today's entire illegal drug market, which is worth an estimated $320 billion per year, according to the United Nations.
The multimedia extravaganza features over 200 artifacts, ranging from dope-inspired paintings and documents, to documentaries and art videos, to giant graphics examining the bloody trail of today's drug trade.
A confession corner gives visitors the chance to share personal experiences with mind-altering substances — anonymously, of course.
One of the aims of the exhibit is to de-stigmatize today's illegal drugs and show there is more to the subject than visitors may have thought, said Caroline Fisher, one of the show's co-curators.
After all, substances that many people ingest freely today — alcohol, caffeine and tobacco — have all been criminalized in years past or are still illegal in some parts of the world.
"Most people don't know that much about drugs earlier than the 1960's, they think that drug culture all started about 50 years ago," Fisher said. "But there's actually a really long and fascinating history behind it."
The oldest artifact — a decrepit, poppy-shaped clay opium jug — dates back to 1500 B.C.
In one of the exhibit's six sections, it presents kaleidoscope of what societies have labeled good or bad drugs and the paraphernalia needed to use them: a Victorian tobacco pipe alongside a contemporary needle kit for injecting drugs, a digital cannabis vaporizer, Chinese beer and Marks & Spencer wine.
A section titled "Collective Intoxication" shows cross-cultural appreciation of drugs in group settings, from the rituals of the Amazon's Barasana people to the "Love-in's" of the 1960's.
Co-curator Mike Jay, a historian and author, says the exhibit should challenge people to step back from the polarized debate about drugs to take a broader historical and cultural view.
"This is a subject that people come to with very strong prejudices on either side. What we're trying to do for people on both sides is to disturb those prejudices," said Jay, whose book "High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture" accompanies the exhibition.
"High Society" is free and runs until February 27.