John Beresford

A Museum
Psychedelic History

by John Beresford

A museum may be thought of as a place where the genius of a people is celebrated in a way that suits the period in which the museum takes shape. It consists of a structure where forms embodying a feeling or zeitgeist are housed and displayed to a public Seeking reminders of a common goal or purpose. A museum attests to the value of certain objects which express the ideals of a community.

The ark of ancient Israel was a museum in this sense. The object it contained was guarded at the center of a community on the move. The city of Rome can be thought of as a museum, constructed of relics that record the progress of Christianity. Probably, no religion omits to provide its adherents with a locale where the story of a people can be traced.

The feeling that knits people together in a community is religious, but the average museum today does not set out to collect articles with an obvious religious twist. At one time museums jostled for possession of works of art in furtherance of nationalistic sentiment, the nation being the form in which the genius of a people was felt to reside. In the last century, museums such as the Science Museum in London assured the viewer that science would lift humanity out of the rut of poverty and squalor. The National Basketball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and Cleveland's Hall of Fame which celebrates the greats of rock 'n roll are no less instruments that nourish the sense of belonging to particular communities.

 What is so maddeningly absent from the museum scene today is acknowledgement of the impact psychedelic agents have had on Western culture since Hofmann's discovery of the effect of LSD. Taking 1943, the year of the discovery, as a marker, no one who is well informed doubts that it indicates a forward step in our understanding of the individual's relation to the sacred. Yet the thought of commemorating this advance seems nowhere to have occurred. There is a market for objects with psychedelic associations. Books and works of art are sought after by private collectors. Universities buy up psychedelic archives.

 But nowhere has there been a thought of creating a public institution open to those in the psychedelic commtmity and the interested outsider alike. The lapse, if it is not soon corrected, will be regretted.

Likely enough, the thought of building a museum to celebrate landmark events of psychedelic history remains a blur on the horizon because, as the response has been to other momentous shifts in people's understanding of the sacred, these first years of the psychedelic era have met with violence and intolerance. It is shameful, but no surprise, that many in the commtmity of those that value psychedelics suffer persecution at the hands of an old guard - today's Neros, priests of the Inquisition, prosecutors of Puritans. Assert your right to use a psychedelic agent and you risk being bounced out of a job or attracting surveillance. Fear of Big Brother's attention is one reason that a museum of psychedelic history has not got off the ground.

Another reason is no doubt complacency. 1993 brought a shock of recognition that LSD had been around for 50 years. Until then, certain writers had made it their business to tell the story of the first half-century of psychedelic use in the West in terms that took into account the experiences, beliefs, and ideals of those who felt part of a psychedelic community. Such accounts were necessarily incomplete and subject to review. It is worth noting that to this day no qualified academician has told the story of psychedelic use in the West: writers who have filled the gap have all been amateurs. Missing in 1993 and still today was any widespread sense of a need to provide a future historian with material on which to base a truthful account of the impact of psychedelic use on Western culture. For that matter, there is no evident sense of a responsibility to provide members of the public a hundred or two hundred years from now with information bearing on the first fifty years of large-scale psychedelic use. Equally, there is no sign of concern that, left to those opposed to the community of users, the story that will be passed on to future generations will be riddled with misinformation. Nevertheless, a laissez-faire attitude in this respect appears to be the rule.

Both to celebrate the use of psychedelics and to forestall erroneous interpretations, a museum of psychedelic history stands to serve a useful purpose. In imagination, the visitor who seeks assistance of the reality of a community encounters feelings prompted by objects once in the possession of past notables. This much constitutes the store of sacred relics the museum houses. Downstairs on the entrance level the visitor can linger on portraits of people well known in their time - Hofmann, Huxley, Wasson, Osmond, Leary, Alpert, Kesey, Garcia, Janiger, and such. A session room, furnished and decorated in preparation for the day when psychedelic use is free of penalty, its door ajar to invite peeks from the curious, has been constructed on the main floor. Upstairs, on the exhibition level and adjacent to the permanent and changing displays, a set of dioramas invites the visitor to step inside and sense one or other of the great moments of psychedelic history. For example, Hofmann's laboratory is there, recreated with the help of authentic glassware of the period and perhaps, as a concession to popular demand, a 1940s bicycle leaning against one wall. Photographic, video, and audio records are available for the visitor to consult. Posters, flyers, buttons, banners, and other devices for conveying information bring up pictures of a past era. Memorabilia of every description convey a sense of authemicity. Up a further flight of stairs the visitor reaches the library with its popular and scholarly sections of hard-to-find material.

That is a one-minute sketch of the lay-out of a museum of psychedelic history. Realizing such an idea is a task that has just started. Already, articles of extraordinary value have been acquired. For a successful outcome, the help of many in the community of users will be needed. The Albert Hofmann Foundation, sponsor of the project, can send out invitations, but everyone is wanted at the party. Anybody out there interested?

Originally printed in Psychedelic Island Views Volume 2, Issue 2, from


Home | About Us | Culture | Events | Links | Museum | Projects | Reviews | Science | Voices | What's New

 © 1999