This May 18 is International Museum Day, part of an entire month celebrating museums around the globe. For many of us, the image that might come to mind when thinking about museums is a place focused on the past: an archive of objects, rare and unique, intended to provide a glimpse of a time and place gone by that can no longer be experienced directly, whether that time was the Jurassic or the Roaring Twenties.
But that’s changing. More and more, museums are seeking to illuminate and inform on subjects of contemporary importance—subjects that are still in flux, where museums can ply their special skills at provoking thought and perspective.
Take, for example, the current exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. It’s titled, “Altered State: Marijuana in California.” This interactive exhibit gives visitors the opportunity to participate in a conversation that is now front-page news in many nations. “The roles of museums in today’s world are shifting,” OMCA Director Lori Fogarty said through a release. “At OMCA, we aim to inspire Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities. As part of this, we are dedicated to being a place where people can come learn about complex topics and, more importantly, add their voices and stories to the dialogue. This exhibition is proof of that in action.”
This approach appears to be a valuable complement to established cannabis-related galleries such as Europe’s Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museums. Founded in 1985 in Amsterdam by entrepreneur Ben Dronkers and his friend Ed Rosenthal (Mr. Rosenthal would later gain notoriety as the Guru of Ganja® and author of the standard textbook of cannabis cultivation, The Marijuana Grower’s Handbook), the museum initially attracted those who visited Amsterdam’s famous coffee houses and were curious about cannabis. The concept was enthusiastically welcomed and led in 2012 to a branch opening in Barcelona. The museum now boasts a collection of over 7,000 cannabis-related artefacts and has welcomed over two million visitors.
In what appears to be a developing trend, plans are also underway for a 2016 opening of the Colorado Museum of Cannabis and Hemp History in Denver. The facility promises to have special attractions such as a smoking room, an in-house theater for cannabis-related cinema and special events—even a grow room where visitors can have their picture taken holding a live cannabis plant.
New Zealand has the Whakamana Museum, a modest facility that mounts exhibits with titles such as “Cannabis Cricket,” “Cannabis History in New Zealand” and “Smoking Techniques of the 90s.”
What about Canada? After all, it made history by being the first nation to legalize medical use of cannabis. It seems reasonable that museum exhibits would be mounted in response to public interest.
In 2004, The Herb Museum opened on Vancouver’s West Hastings (the so-called Pot Block of “Vandersterdam”) with over 1200 ancient-to-contemporary artefacts related to cannabis and other herbal medicines, displayed in five rooms of exhibits. It also sold artwork and accessories, and encouraged visitors to bring their own cannabis and “burn while they learn.” Unfortunately, the Herb Museum closed in autumn of 2014, with plans to reopen in the United States in the future.
Cannabis use is a fascinatingly diverse subject of study, rich with stories of everything from healing to horticulture, pipes to prohibition. As cannabis increasingly enters the mainstream, there is a corresponding growing interest in learning more. We support the efforts of museums and other learning institutions to inform and enlighten the public on this important issue.