Coffee, Sugar & Peyote

A Trip Into the World of Mind-Altering Substances

By Rhana Hashemi

On March 15, University of California, Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology launched its newest exhibit on the complex history of mind-altering substances and their various uses across the globe and spanning time.

The exhibit, entitled “Pleasure, Poison, Prescription, Prayer: The Worlds of Mind-Altering Substances,” highlights the range of experiences, tools, perspectives, uses and socioeconomic dynamics around 10 mind-altering drugs.

Some of these substances are more widely available, some may not even seem to most people like mind-altering drugs and others are often stigmatized or illegal. The exhibit, now open to the public through Dec. 15, is designed to invite visitors “to question their assumptions about these drugs and the people who use them.”

A stroll through the gallery takes you on a historical, geographical and cultural journey through the worlds of tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, cannabis, opium, areca nut, kava, peyote, coca and sugar.

Katie Flemming, the gallery manager, told The BCC Voice that the artifacts on display come from the museum’s $3.8 million collection and showcase items such as opium pipes, hookahs and tobacco pouches.

Descriptions accompanying each drug include their scientific names, geographic origins, how they’re used and their mind-altering effects.

The information is presented in a balanced, honest and culturally respectful manner, and intends to expand on the notion that experiences with substances can be both profound and destructive.

At its opening night, Flemming explained to visitors that the exhibit is meant to be a living space that welcomes the myriad of experiences people have with the topic.

Scattered throughout the gallery are areas where visitors are asked to post their stories on the walls to help illustrate the complex dynamics and range of beliefs people have with mind-altering substances.

Adam Nilsen, the Hearst Museum’s head of education who oversaw the exhibition’s curation, shared surprises and interesting moments he had in the process of putting together the exhibit. One of Nilsen’s favorite pieces is a collection of wine vessels with big eyes painted on them, which were used by the ancient Greeks.

“If you were an ancient Greek getting tipsy at a banquet, you would want to protect yourself in a moment of drunken misjudgment from anyone casting you the evil eye,” Nilsen said. “You could drink your wine and face those eyes outward to deflect the evil eye.”

Nilsen also talked about similarities and differences around the world in how people think about mind-altering substances. “In the United States, we have many conversations about vaping and tobacco products being marketed to children. I thought it was fascinating to find that, in India, these very same conversations were being had, but with betel nut being marketed to kids using fruit-flavored additions.”

Because there’s so much to say about drugs that can’t be contained in the gallery, Fleming explained that the exhibit is trying to expand the conversation by holding a number of events in the following months. The wealth of programming includes talks and tastings with local vendors such as Highline Coffee Co. and Melo Melo Kava, a lecture series with talks such as “Ritual Uses of Psychoactive Plants and Fungi,” “Ayahuasca Shamanism,” and “The Cultural Importance and Pharmacology of Datura,” and hands-on workshops such as an Ethiopian coffee ceremony that allows participants sensory ways of experiencing the exhibit.

The best way to find out more about the exhibit and its upcoming events is either by visiting the Pheobe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, located at the UC Berkeley campus, in Kroeber Hall, during its operating hours, Wednesday-Sunday or by visiting their website, hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu. Admission is only $3 for BCC students with student ID.

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