Utrecht University: Exhibition on the Dutch history of opium

The exhibition, which is in English, is set up in one of the buildings in the Amstel passage at Amsterdam Central Station. There is an old-fashioned apothecary’s cupboard with all kinds of objects and texts in the drawers. Through QR codes and virtual peepholes, visitors are literally given a glimpse into history.

In the year 1750, opium was perfectly legal to buy at any pharmacy in the city.

Stephen Snelders
Freudenthal Institute
“In this exhibition, we want to bring out the scientific story in an innovative way,” says Snelders. “For example, we show on a number of historical maps what Amsterdam looked like at different times in terms of narcotics. In 1750, opium was perfectly legal to buy at any pharmacy in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, drug users mostly took to the city centre to get their hands on the opiate heroin illegally.”

Two of the historical maps in the exhibition, adapted by Thomas van den Brink, PhD candidate PortCityFutures, Leiden-Delft-Erasmus (original maps: Amsterdam City Archive collection)
Dangerous image
In his research project, Snelders discovered all sorts of surprising aspects of the history of narcotics. “In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, opium was freely available. But it’s not as if the whole of Amsterdam was heavily into the stuff. Just like with soft drugs or alcohol now, availability does not immediately mean there is a problem.”

The dangerous image of opium applies only to a limited extent to the substance itself, Snelders concludes. “Some painkillers are based on the active substance in opium, so in that sense it can have a very positive use as well. What’s more dangerous is everything that surrounds these drugs: the trade and the culture surrounding their use.”

I want visitors to this exhibition to look at the history of drugs with an open mind.

Stephen Snelders
Freudenthal Instituut
Originally, the plan was to organise a workshop for researchers to conclude the research project. “But this free exhibition for a broad audience obviously makes a much bigger impact. I want visitors to this exhibition to look at this phenomenon with an open mind.”

Snelders has enjoyed collaborating with artists on the exhibition. “Talking with artists is very different than with academics. They were very enthusiastic and curious. At the same time, it turned out that the artists had some basic assumptions about drugs that weren’t necessarily true, but rather based on urban legends. It was a bit of a puzzle sometimes to find the right angle. But I am very happy with the result.”

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