In the middle of the Oakland Museum of California, around 40 photographs hang from the ceiling, clustered together like a forest. They’re on-the-job selfies, taken by people who work across all aspects of the marijuana industry—growing, distribution, marketing. Underneath the images are answers to a Studs Terkel-like questionnaire: the subjects discuss what they do, how they feel about it, and if they’re satisfied with their work.
The selfie forest, says Sarah Seiter, the associate curator of natural sciences for OMCA, is one of many perspectives offered by the museum’s newest exhibit, open to the public from April 16 through September 15, 2016. Called “Altered State: Marijuana in California,” it is, according to OMCA, the first-ever mainstream museum exhibition devoted entirely to pot.
The exhibit, Seiter says, “doesn’t take a position on legalization, or whether recreational use is good or bad.” Instead, it examines the science, economics, politics, history, and spirituality surrounding the drug. Seiter adds that the exhibit aims to “be a place where anyone with deeply held opinions can come and just be in conversation with other folks.”
Given that the exhibit takes Oakland as its base, deeply held opinions will not be hard to come by.
“There’s always been a pretty strong public discourse around marijuana in Oakland,” Seiter says. The availability of empty warehouse space in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, before the city became mired in tech-boom real-estate spikes, made it a hub for indoor growing. Alongside that culture and knowledge around production, Seiter says, Oakland’s policy toward pot has historically been more lenient than most cities’. Looking through the minutes from mid-1990s Oakland City Council meetings, Seiter came across an argument in favor of medical marijuana that long predated the national conversation; it’s featured on the wall of the exhibit. And Measure Z, passed in 2004, designated marijuana use the lowest-priority legal offense in the city. “In Oakland, if a cop sees a guy littering and smoking a joint, he’s supposed to ticket the littering above the marijuana,” Seiter says.
With a statewide ballot measure to legalize marijuana in the works in advance of this year’s elections, the dialogue has been ramping up. “We’re a city that’s been very comfortable having these conversations,” Seiter says. “It makes sense that the museum would be the next institution to join in.”
Culturally, pot has long been embraced in Oakland: When Seiter and her team walked the OMCA board of directors, mostly in their 60s and 70s, through their plans for “Altered State,” they expected pushback; instead, they were met with pretty overwhelming support and a request for “good information for families.”
But there’s room for more contemporary engagement with the issue. “Altered State,” Seiter says, is part of OMCA’s push to design more socially relevant exhibits that deal directly with the issues cropping up right outside on the streets of Oakland. “Altered State” encourages visitor participation; an aspect of the “Criminal Dope” section allows people to describe their weed-related dealings with the Oakland Police Department. Centers like OMCA and the Brooklyn Museum, adds Seiter, are at the forefront of a large-scale shift. “We’re seeing more and more museums ask: ‘are we a temple or a forum?’” Seiter says.
Still, up until this point, museums have largely steered clear of positioning themselves as a platform for conversation around drugs. Seiter says that while places like the Hash, Marihuana, and Hemp Museum in Amsterdam and the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum in Washington, D.C. have hosted marijuana-specific exhibits, they were designed to push specific agendas: pro- and anti-drug, respectively.
In looking for a model for an unbiased, open-forum approach to a controversial topic, Seiter says she looked instead to the Montreal Science Center, whose “Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition” provides teenagers with sex-positive, frank answers to their thorniest questions.
Throughout the 18-month process of designing “Altered State,” Seiter and her colleagues at the OMCA kept an open mind; she says that for even those visitors and curators alike who deem themselves fairly knowledgeable on pot, there’s room for surprise, or an altering of perspective. Though she’s not spiritual, Seiter says that, after road trips to visit Rastafari reverends in Sacramento and two new-age radical nuns who own a farm outside Merced, she came away with a new appreciation for the mindset. These growers’ stories are collected into a documentary, which plays as visitors make their way through the installations. En route, of course, they pass by the actual cannabis sativa plants, on display in a glass case.
But the bud itself is almost an afterthought of the exhibit. “Altered State” shows just how many strains of discussion and culture have passed through this one drug, and how its shifting position indexes the parallel evolution of the state and its politics.