High Society


11 November 2010 - 27 February 2011

High Society exhibition

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 level of addiction. Yet the use of psychoactive drugs is nothing new, and indeed our most familiar ones - alcohol, coffee and tobacco - have all been illegal in the past.

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. 'High Society' will explore the paths by which these drugs were first discovered - from apothecaries' workshops to state-of-the-art laboratories - and how they came to be simultaneously fetishised and demonised in today's culture.

Image galleries

Image gallery

Many of today's illicit drugs, such as cannabis and heroin, come from plants that have been used as medicines for thousands of years.

Image gallery

Most medicinal drugs can be tested in vitro or on animals, and their effects measured and observed in the laboratory.

Image gallery

The 19th-century opium trade was a crucial factor in the British Empire's rise to global supremacy.


Below are a selection of essays first featured as part of exclusive online content for 'Big Picture: Addiction'. Published twice a year, 'Big Picture' is a free post-16 resource for teachers that explores issues around biology and medicine. Find out more about the 'Big Picture' series.


Would you pop a pill to improve your brain power? Do you think everyone should be able to take such medication if they want to?



​In this strategic plate-spinning game, you play an independent British smuggler selling opium in China's Pearl Delta.


Test your knowledge of drugs. Faster answers mean higher scores.



Curators: Mike Jay, Caroline Fisher, Emily Sargent.