Showcasing The Lessons Not Learnt

by Henry Fisher


Museums are meant to capture the past. They present artefacts from our history so that we might learn from them and avoid repeating mistakes once made. This is the irony that the Museum of Drug Policy captured in sharp relief.

Lessons from over forty years of failed global drug policy have not been learnt, as the UN last week week convened to endorse a vacuous ‘outcomes’ document resolving to continue the global war on drugs, while individual countries took turns to denounce the very document they have collectively agreed to uphold once more.

The three day pop-up Museum, hosted by the Stop The Harm coalition, an initiative of the Open Society Foundations, and set to coincide with UNGASS, was as beautiful as it was heart-wrenching. Located less than five minutes walk from the UN headquarters and in the purposefully incongruous setting of a Park Avenue skyscraper, the exhibit hosted artworks collected from around the globe, each highlighting the folly of the continuing drug war, either through displaying its worst horrors or its most laughable delusions.

As each piece confronts visitors, another injustice is presented, from the desperate lack of access to opiate-based medications afflicting most of the world, to the racially motivated cruelty of mass incarceration, through to the sadistic torture games Mexico’s drug cartels play on those children unfortunate enough to get caught up in their battles. The end result leaves you numb, unsure whether to run over to the UN building and shout at those blithely debating inside, or slump into a chair and ruminate on the sheer breadth and scale of the inhumanity borne out by the drug war.

This, of course, is the message of the Museum: The exhibits are not dusty curiosities recalling memories of a historic conflict, they are markers of ongoing suffering, of how little progress has been made in the war on drugs since its inception, and of how many live have been – and continue to be – ruined in countless ways from the war’s unintended consequences.

Michael Skolnik, the Museum’s charismatic curator, had just over two months to bring the exhibition together, which he admits was only possible with the help of his dedicated team, in particular Jamila Hooker, who he claims was the creative brains behind the project, responsible for finding the various artists and collecting their works for the exhibit. He highlights his personal favourite exhibit of the museum – a collection of portraits of coca farmers, their own poverty striking a powerful discord with the glamorous, expensive image of the end product, cocaine, something that could not be further realities of these people’s lives.

A centrepiece of the museum is a mock up of a maximum security prison solitary confinement cell, modelled on real example inside a US penitentiary, and complete with looping audio of a facility. Visitors are invited to enter and close themselves inside the cell, to experience the extreme claustrophobia experienced by prisoners. Having experienced the deeply unsettling feeling for a minute or so in the cell myself, it was sobering to overhear upon exiting the exhibit another visitor recanting to his companions “Yep, I spent two years in a box just like this.”

Another somber exhibit displays a collection portraits of young Iranian women arrested on drug charges and locked up, but not tried until after they turn eighteen, so as to ensure the could be charged with the death penalty, according to Iranian law. The sheer artistry on display in the exhibit by it contributors that had fallen foul to the drug war was also notable. In one instance, a young artist had produced two pictures from the ash of his father, who had suffered and eventually died from a long-term crack addiction, whilst stretching along the far wall of the museum was a mural by ***, made of the course of 6 years in prison by taking imprints of *** with hair gel and imprinting them on bedsheets.

Interactive exhibits such as the Truth Booth, where visitors were invited to share their own experiences of the war on drug, however minor or tangential, or the tree of remembrance, where

Besides the exhibits, the Museum has also acted as a focal point for the UNGASS proceedings, especially for those who cound not get into the UN buildings, and so in some way became the face of the UN events for many visitors, despite itself acting as the arch criticism of the UNGASS conclusions. The Museum also played host to a series of events throughout its three days, each making its own criticism against the war on drugs

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