High on History

Altered States takes an academic look at drug culture through the years.

Potheads may chuckle at the sound of it, but the Western Reserve Historical Society's Altered States: The History of Alcohol and Other Drugs in America is no joke. Placed within a sobering setting, it keeps the quirks to a minimum, taking a defiantly academic position.

Yet Altered States transcends its conservative presentation by piling on plenty of eye-catching artifacts: Temperance-era posters damning the evils of booze, speakeasy songbooks, and liquor bottles labeled to look like medicine seem like quaint reminders of drier days. And pipes, bongs, and psychedelic album covers may trigger moments of hedonistic hippie reverie. But a symbol of modern inner-city squalor -- a battered crack-house door -- stands as a reminder of drug culture's grim reality.

"We, as a culture, have a very short-term memory from one generation to the next," says Patricia Tice, director of collections at Rochester, New York's Strong Museum, where the exhibit originated. Assembling the show, she says, required a balanced and sensitive presentation. "We go through periods of use, misuse, and then fervent awareness-raising.

"There's a perennial belief that someone's going to come up with a drug to make life easier and more enjoyable or, conversely, a magic bullet to cure addiction."

Still, Tice believes that every generation has an opportunity to make a difference. "I hope, when parents go through this exhibit, they have a chance to discuss these things with their children. There are a lot of people who are either uncomfortable talking about drugs or think that it can't happen in their community." Altered States not only proves that it can; it also puts substance abuse -- by no means a modern quandary -- in historical perspective. "These problems have been with us for a long time now," Tice says. "It's nothing new we're facing."