An imagined journey to The Psychedelic Museum (taken from the forthcoming book by Julian Vayne ‘Getting Higher! The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony’).
The entrance to the museum is plain white, this a good thing because it means I can begin to watch the gently dancing network of patterns pulsating across my vision. It’s a bright day and I’ve left my sunglasses on, bright light streams through the domed ceiling above me. The glasses also obscure the fact that my pupils are unnaturally dilated (especially in this brilliant chamber). I check my coat and bag into the cloakroom, pay for my ticket but decide I don’t want to use, at least for this visit, the variety of electronic methods for interpretation and ‘gamification’ that are on offer. I push my phone safely into my pocket and head for the doorway.
The entheogen I have taken makes the rippling carving around the doorway even more impressive than the last time I visited. This is the entrance to The Psychedelic Museum, which I’m entering at ‘museum level’, that is, while moderately high.
Of course this museum, like any ‘shrine of the muse’’ (which is what ‘museum’ literally means) is perfect for exploring while in an altered state. For, while some places aim for a fine-art gallery feel (with one of two star objects in glass cases), a panoply of interactive elements or ‘old school’ style plan chests full of mysterious and wonderful things – the psychedelic museum, attempting to reflect the psychedelic experience includes all three museological approaches.
But more than this, this museum blends those types of spaces together, blurring boundaries and styles. I enter the main hall through short dark tunnel, illuminated with famous quotes that appear, in glowing lettering, and then fade away, creating a web of words that tune in nicely with the visuals I’m starting to get. ‘If the doors of perception were to be cleansed…’ and ‘We’re not dropping out here, we’re infiltrating and taking over’. Which makes me laugh out loud. It’s okay, I’m not drawing attention to myself I think as a wide-eyed and prodigiously talkative group of tourists enter the tunnel.
There are some fascinating objects here and whenever I’ve visited I’ve seen something different. This is probably because one of the features of the museum is that they move the stuff around all the time. In fact just as I arrive into the hall (the museum is really one large building with various vaguely delineated zones created by moveable walls and other elements) I see a large white rabbit bobbing along. It’s being moved by three members of staff (easy to spot in their black clothes and t-shirts sporting the logo of the psychedelic museum; the classic ‘museum’ road sign symbol with a dayglo Greek letter ‘psi’ where the ‘M’ for museum usually sits). The crew gently stand the rabbit which, judging by the way they are moving it, I imagine must be made of ceramic, atop a small plinth. Two workers stand back to regard the display, calculating I assume some arcane museum aesthetics of position. The third adjusts an LED that throws a soft white light over the giant watch-peering bunny. On closer inspection I can discern (the dose I’ve taken, while I’m getting a few visuals, isn’t high enough that reading is challenging) a label. ‘This White Rabbit was gifted to The Psychedelic Museum by The Psychedelic Society, Birmingham 2020’. There’s an electronic tag on the plinth where I could access more information but I’ve got enough to think about here. The rest of the label is suitably gnomic reading; “You may be early, you may be late or you may be right on time”. Obviously, because I’m on drugs, I interpret the arrival of this totemic animal as a good omen.
I can feel the medicine now, very clearly, I’ve come up and am likely to plateau now for about two hours. Plenty of time to explore this magical space. I’ve particularly come to see a couple of newly displayed items. But, as the weather is fine and it’s early in the day I ‘ll have time to come down gently in the delightful psychedelic garden attached to the museum, then to find my way to the centre of the building and ‘The High Tea Shop’, there to lounge on a chaise and listen to the wonderful range of psychedelic music they play (from The Incredible String Band through to early recordings of Siberian spirit songs) until closing time. Drinking chai with guarana and, if I’m in the mood, writing about my journey for this book.
Spreading through me there is an openness and wonder and I sense that I need to be gentle with myself. This is a recreational and nourishing visit, not one where I want to test my psyche in any way. With this in mind I decide not to step past the ‘hazard’ tape and into the gallery that holds some of the more difficult parts of the collection. There are challenging objects that can be seen here; documents and artefacts from the ear of military experimentation with LSD. There is a mock-up of a porton down acid research cell (featuring a video played on one wall of historian Andy Roberts, speaking at break-neck speed, about this dark side of the British acid story).
Even so everything else in the museum isn’t just sweetness and light. I find myself at one point fascinated by a slideshow of photographs in a case devoted to the use of peyote (a substance in the same family as the one I’m on right now). Amongst the amazing bead work, feathered shamans hats and costume, a rolling series of photographs are projected onto a white Hucholi costume. These include images of animal sacrifice, an important part of the tradition in that part of Mexico, and (having gone through the inner dialogue about meat eating, animal cruelty and all that) I find myself fascinated by how I feel both empathy for the goats I can see slaughtered, and I feel understanding for the Hucholi people who are simply building the preparation of their food into their spiritual tradition. I find myself wondering at beauty of brilliant red splashed across pristine white cloth.
Museum visits are often like this for me, especially when I’m high. I feel like I’m seeing many of the interpretations of each object. Not getting fixed in any one story (which is perhaps a key effect of psychedelics).
There are notices of appreciation as I wander around, thanking numerous members of the international psychedelic community for their generous donations and loans; this is place is truly a collaborative work, and a true wonderland.
I find myself beside a case of objects donated by the estate of Richard Evans Schultes; Shipibo textiles and faded field notes about the presence of ‘telepathin’ in ayahuasca. I peer at each of the objects in turn. There are ancient stone cups made for holding the jungle brew. There’s even a tiny star shaped box (perhaps a donation from one of the Diame Churches?) on the outside of the glass case beneath which is written (looping back to my Alice in Wonderland moment at the entrance) ‘Smell Me!’. So I do. Yes, that’s it! The smell of ayahuasca! Ha! The smell of ayahuasca in the morning I chuckle; smells like victory!
On a nearby wall there is a large circle. This is screen for a film showing the preparation of ayahuasca. The movie has been shot from above and I’m looking straight down into a boiling cauldron of brown liquid as figures in t-shirts and a range of skin tones and hair styles, stir and chop and stoke the fire. Then the images change and now this is a Santo Daime ceremony. Initially this is also shot from above, but as I watch the camera pulls back and down and the figures are at their usual angle. For a moment the sound of an icaro (previously very distant, possibly generated by speakers under the floor) swells and I can hear it clearly. The rattles and drums in the cases beside me seem to vibrate as the sound builds. Then, after what feels like ages but was perhaps only a few moments, it softens, echoes, and fades into a gentle background hum.
I wander on, deeper into the collection. There is a dome shaped structure within which dance music is being played and examples of UV banners from Megatripolis and Burning Man are incandescent with black light. Beyond this there is a full scale replica of the laboratory of Alexander Shulgin (a delicate collection of the arcane flasks, retorts and test tubes in which Sasha used to cook his amazing psychedelic alchemy). There, in the case is his lab book, a signed and stained grimoire of chemical conjuration. I linger here for a while, entranced by an original Alex Gray painting of Alexander and Ann hanging, self referential and glowing, in the lab.
Here I make my connection, between the sacrament I have taken and this story. Again I feel as though I sense all of it, all the narratives of MDMA and its sister medicines. I know, can sense, and am surrounded by objects that hold me in the network of narratives; of Goa Gil and psytrance, of the tragic death of Leah Betts, of the early explorations of MDMA in psychotherapy, the period of its banning and all that ‘Ecstasy destroys monkey brains’ narrative through ‘til now, when MDMA is again returning as a legitimate therapeutic agent and even, in some places, as a drug that is legally available to non-medical users.
I sit here for a moment, surrounded by this web of meaning and possibility and give thanks for the truth that in many places in the world we are finding better ways to be with the existence of this miraculous chemical.
I’m gently coming down but it’s still early in the afternoon. I make my way into the garden. There’s an exhibition outside of rare datura plants curated by Kew Gardens. It’s about the right time of year to admire those fantastical trumpeting flowers, and sit, and reflect on my trip thus far…