This short film documents my collaboration with Phil Withington, other academics, and creative partners to explore the significance of intoxicants in Ben Jonson’s The New Inn, and its connections to Bolsover Castle. Jonson, author of Volpone and The Alchemist, produced the play at the start of 1629. It’s a romantic comedy set in The Light Heart, an inn where the Host – a nobleman in disguise – receives high-born revellers and their servants. Beer and wine flow as secrets and identities are revealed. The play appeared on the London stage soon after Jonson’s patron William Cavendish was made an Earl, and his mother became a Baroness. The family had also just begun an impressive extension to Bolsover Castle, their sumptuous pleasure house in Derbyshire, creating a palatial venue for feasting. Was The New Inn intended for a celebratory event featuring wine, the famous Derbyshire ale, and lavish amounts of sugar?
Following a well-attended launch event last month, the project’s Virtual Exhibition is now live! Three years in the making, and conceived as a digital scrapbook, the exhibition brings together over 1,500 exhibits – or ‘scraps’ – from archives, libraries, and museums. All relate to the introduction, circulation, sale, enjoyment, and regulation of new intoxicants in sites and spaces across our case study cities of Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Stockholm. Designed to be used for research, teaching, or simply general interest, the exhibition provides an innovative and easy way to explore and compare the entangled histories of intoxicating spaces in the Baltic and North Seas. We hope you have as much fun using it as we had creating it, and do let us know what you think!
The project rounded out 2021 with a ‘big bang’ in Amsterdam, when work on opium by our Utrecht research team was translated into a unique project in public space: Worlds of Opiates, a pop-up exhibition co-created with artist Corne van der Stelt, Het Uitvindersgilde, and Poppi, a start-up drugs museum and social enterprise. Visitors to the show walk through an immersive field of giant 3D poppy flowers, and discover the many attributes of the most powerful flower known to mankind. Interactive elements tell stories about opium, laudanum, heroin, and painkillers, the same substance in different guises eliciting different societal responses.
Intoxicating substances are part of everyday life, especially during social interactions. At the same time, pressure on space in urban regions and cities is great; not only today, but also in the past. How do cities and urban populations past and present accommodate drug consumption and negotiate public space use? Whose voices are heard when it comes to policymaking about public space and substance use? Moreover, what happens when you bring historians, criminologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and practitioners from drug work together to discuss these questions? Back in October we gave it a try and invited experts from different backgrounds to join in a horizon-widening discussion based upon the fast-talk method, a focused and time-limited discussion designed to generate policy-relevant information.
From 3 December 2021–29 March 2022, our Utrecht research team will hold a free pop-up exhibition for the general public at Amsterdam Central Station, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. The interactive show, organised in conjunction with the Poppi Drug Museum and called Worlds of Opiates, invites visitors to explore the history of opium in Amsterdam and its associated public spaces in a global context. Drawing on the findings of the project, and incorporating data from the 1970s and 1980s produced by our HERA partner project Governing the Narcotic City and the Mainline Foundation for harm reduction, the exhibition features both physical and digital objects, as well as historic maps of opium distribution in Amsterdam. Visitors can open and investigate the drawers of an original apothecaries’ counter, watch slideshows, access additional information on their mobile devices via QR codes, or listen to lectures by historians on topics such as opium use among the eighteenth-century Dutch elite, early modern opium use in Scotland, or the drug’s connection with Afghanistan.
One ear-achingly chilly day in February 2020, forty-odd pupils from secondary schools in Oldenburg and Neu Wulmsdorf, three teachers and I descended on the German Maritime Museum (DSM) in Bremerhaven. Our mission? To explore the museum’s extensive collection of intoxicant-related historical treasures and to brainstorm ideas for an exhibition – researched and curated by students with assistance from staff at the DSM – on the history of tobacco, coffee, tea, chocolate, and sugar in port cities of the early modern period.