Walking into the Oakland Museum of California’s Great Hall, you immediately pick up on some clues that this isn’t your usual exhibition.
There are the café tables and chairs designed for conversation. There’s a snack machine filled with Skittles, Cheetos and Fritos labeled “Munchies.”
And right as you enter the Great Hall, you’ll see a glass case filled with live cannabis plants, on loan to the museum for Altered State: Marijuana in California, the first exhibition of its kind (on show till September 25).
Altered States offers ten sections exploring everything from the use of marijuana in religious contexts to scientific data to the economics of the drug. Most of these offer interactive exhibits to provoke discussion.
On the wall as you enter the museum you see quotes such as poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Pot is fun,” rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “I don’t smoke. Period,” and a question from William Bennett, both the former drug czar and the Secretary of Education: “Why in God’s name foster the use of a drug that makes you stupid?”
There’s the Cannabis Confessional, where people go inside a booth, draw the black curtains, and write on an index card what their thoughts about marijuana.
The anonymous responses displayed outside the booth include someone who says they wish their young autistic son could smoke pot to calm his anxieties, and someone who says he loves his girlfriend but doesn’t want to have kids with her because she smokes every day.
You can spin a wheel that tells you the likely outcome if you’re caught with marijuana in different places—“Frisked in Fresno,” “Stopped in Seattle” or “Busted in Berkeley.”
On the wall is a chart showing arrest rates broken down by ethnicities (people of color are twice as likely to get arrested in California and four times as likely nationally.)
In the “Politically Loaded” section, staff members from the American Civil Liberties Union and NORML, an organization dedicated to the legal use of marijuana, will hold office hours to answer people’s questions.
In the part of the exhibition that explores creativity and pot, there are two pads on the wall. “Draw on this if you’re high,” says one. “Draw on this if you’re not,” says the other.
The show has taken two years to curate. Sarah Seiter, an associate curator of Natural Science at the museum, said a prototype of the show had attracted a lot of interest from the public.
“People were so willing to engage with the information—they were spending a long time reading,” Seiter said. “I used to teach science, and I had a hard time getting my students to read a draft.”
Along with wanting written information about marijuana, museum staff discovered that people really want to talk about the drug.
Kelly McKinley, director of the Lab at OMCA, says the mock up of the show was in the museum’s café, and people ended up sitting for hours, sharing their ideas and opinions. That’s why they decided on the café tables and snack machine, she says, to provide a comfortable place for those conversations.
Mentioning some upcoming exhibitions such as one on gentrification in Oakland and another on the Black Panthers, founded 50 years ago this year in Oakland, McKinley says this is what the museum aspires to do— serve the community and give them a place to talk about relevant issues, such as the state measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana this year.
“We want to build a connection between the institution and the community. It’s such a complicated issue, we wanted to represent many different perspectives,” McKinley said. “Museums have sometimes erred on the side of having one expert voice. We want to recognize there are many types of expertise, including lived expertise.”
Seiter says members of a youth center in nearby San Leandro were consulted for the show’s youth section.
Melissa Standen, a curatorial assistant, reached out to people in the state’s multi-billion dollar marijuana industry, asking them to send in selfies with a description of what they do. Another staff member, Ryan LeBlanc, interviewed people about their experiences using marijuana in their spiritual practice for a documentary in the exhibition.
Seiter has learned a lot while putting Altered State together, particularly about the scientific data on the medical effects of marijuana—or the lack of it.
“You always hear that pot is so good for epilepsy,” she said. “But there have only been four studies, and two of those didn’t have control groups.”
Seiter says the board of the museum made up of, as she calls them, “Oaklanders of some stature”, was fine with the potentially controversial topic: they just wanted to make sure the show didn’t take a position on legalization and there were spaces for conversation.
“There were these women in their 70s and they just said, ‘Well, as long as you’re accurate,’” Seiter said. “Oakland is so cool.”