A new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California is bringing the wonders of marijuana to a wider audience, and doing it in artistic style.
Altered State: Marijuana in California is easily the biggest – and possibly the first – museum exhibit in America to focus exclusively on cannabis. The exhibit in the museum’s Great Hall starts April 16, runs through September, and will feature 10 artistic displays, live events, and pop-up shops.
It’s a big deal, and not only for weed. The exhibit marks a major turning point for the museum, long a small, out-of-the-way operation dedicated to California, its art, and its history.
“This is the kind of work we’ve been hoping to do,” said Communications Director Kelly Koski. “How do we really create exhibits that are relevant to the community?”
Marijuana’s growing acceptance
Relevant indeed. Marijuana has exploded onto the American scene in recent years, rising from a shady back-alley drug to an intoxicant on par with fine wine and strong bourbon. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug for recreation, while more than two dozen states allow some form of medical cannabis.
But the drug’s growing acceptance had yet to make its way into a major American museum. That’s not surprising: Big cultural institutions tend to accept marijuana at a snail’s pace, far slower than the rest of society.
It took a year to put Altered State together at a price tag of roughly $500,000. Seven museum employees built it and conducted more than 100 research interviews. The exhibit will cover 3,700 square feet and include interactive art installations dealing with science, medicine, legalization, religion, creativity, business, criminal law, propaganda, politics, and youth.
Sarah Seiter was the museum curator behind the exhibit, which marks her first time directing a project appearing in the Great Hall. Seiter decided to focus Altered State strictly on marijuana in California and Oakland, as well as its recent history in these places. It doesn’t tackle other aspects of the drug, including its long history around the world.
The museum put together a small mock-up exhibit last summer, seeking feedback from visitors. Their comments focused heavily on disparities in cannabis arrest rates and use of the drug by young people.
“I was amazed at how political it still feels for a lot of people,” Seiter said. “They have experienced discrimination around this. We had a great quote from a kid saying:
‘It’s better to learn about it here when you’re 12 than from your friends when you’re 16.”
The preview exhibit also drew many visitors to a “cannabis confession” booth where they talked candidly about how they and other people use marijuana.
“We got really honest stuff,” Seiter said. “Everything from, like, ‘I’ve been smoking weed and going to work every day, and it’s the only thing that makes the job tolerable,’ to other people saying, like, ‘My partner smokes weed all the time, and I’m so frustrated. They’re just not present.'”
Offerings at Altered State will include a growing cannabis plant encased in a sealed box. Visitors can touch bud using protective gloves, which Seiter said is ironic, given that millions of people touch this “benign plant” with their bare hands every day.
“It’s the front-and-center thing,” she said. “We call it ‘the alien case,’ because it’s like the one sci-fi movies use when they’re doing the alien in glass.”
Let us know: Does marijuana belong in a museum? Would you see Altered State if you were in the Bay Area? Post a comment below.