Mind-Altering Substances Topic of Exhibit at Berkeley Museum

The exhibition explores the cultural importance of peyote, opium, cannabis, and more.
Sake Bottles/ Gavin Lee

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley is exploring the world of drugs in an exhibit called Pleasure, Poison, Prescription, Prayer: The Worlds of Mind-Altering Substances. The school’s faculty members and undergraduate students contributed research for the exhibition, which calls into question why substances such as sugar and caffeine are socially acceptable, while others like peyote and opium are illegal and stigmatized.

Pleasure, Poison, Prescription, Prayer features items from the Hearst Museum’s permanent collection of historical objects that have traditionally produced, processed, stored, or were used for consuming a variety of substances, including but not limited to alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, betel nut, kava, and coca. The exhibition showcases objects ranging from a pre-Incan portrait jar from Peru and a Hookah from 1960s India to a 20th century Japanese sake gourd. Other objects include elaborate snuff bottles, water pipes, and specialty scissors used for cutting betel nuts, which have historically been used as a stimulant.

Betel Scissors/ Gavin Lee

Concerning the significance of the exhibition’s title, Katie Fleming, Gallery Manager & Education Coordinator, and Adam Nilsen, Head of Education & Interpretation, tell High Times: “While each of these substances has a unique history and cultural provenance, one thing they have in common is the multifarious role they play in society. Each substance highlighted in the exhibit has the potential to be used recreationally to provide pleasure, can be poisonous if consumed in excess, has a medicinal function or has the capacity to heal, and plays a role in spirituality or religious practice. We wanted to highlight the often-overlooked fact that there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to how people use or judge substances.”

Some of the oldest objects in the exhibit are a collection of 3000-year-old Ancient Egyptian beer cups. “Beer was the staple drink of Ancient Egyptians and was consumed by people of all classes and ages,” Fleming and Nilsen explain. “Getting drunk on beer was also a part of religious devotional rituals to Hathor, the goddess of joy, celebration, kindness, and love. It was considered so important that people had cups like these buried with them in tombs to take with them to the afterlife.”

Beer Cups/ Gavin Lee

One of the exhibition’s most unusual objects is a bilbil: a small ceramic jug from the island of Cyprus that is shaped like an upside-down poppy — the only one of its kind in the Hearst collection. “What makes it so fascinating is that archaeologists have found traces of opium in bilbils like this,” say Fleming and Nilsen. “The fact that they are found all over the Mediterranean tells us that there must have been a significant opium trade in the region.”

Other items on view include artworks that are inspired by or represent the use of mind-altering substances, including yarn paintings from the Huichol of Mexico, with spiritual motifs and depictions of the peyote cactus.

When asked what they hope visitors take away from the exhibition, Fleming and Nilsen believe it’s important that people grasp the origins of the substances, as well as their social and cultural trajectories.

“Understanding the structural powers at play and the indigenous roots and traditions surrounding these substances is critical in inspiring empathy for users and respect for the power of these diverse substances. We hope this exhibit leaves visitors questioning their preconceived notions and empowered to continue to learn.”

Snuff Bottles/ Gavin Lee

Pleasure, Poison, Prescription, Prayer: The Worlds of Mind-Altering Substances is on view through December 15th, 2019 at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley.

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