Arts & Culture

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‘Altered States’ collection takes student down research rabbit hole

When Jensen Davis ’20 dug into the “Altered States” exhibit at the Houghton Library, she expected to find a story of “dissent and rebellion.” Instead, she found what she first thought of as an elite narrative “dominated by wealthy white men.” It was only later that she realized the collection “uniquely preserves so many different narratives that transcend geographic, class, racial, [and] gender lines.”

Jensen Davis has tapped into Harvard’s Ludlow-Santo Domingo collection for her research on psychedelic drugs. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

That collection, 120 pieces culled from the 50,000 inherited from Julio Mario Santo Domingo Jr. — a billionaire who was obsessed with the search for transcendence — is sorted into seven themes for the exhibit: opium, psychedelics, cocaine, marijuana, sex, protest, and underground comics. Using books, posters, and ephemera, “Altered States” tells the stories of 400 years of intoxication and mind expansion, dependency and excess.

Visitors to Houghton can review an assortment of rolling papers, several lampooning President Richard Nixon. And there’s a nod to onetime Harvard professor and counterculture icon Timothy Leary: “Altered States” includes a postcard of a man thanking Leary for the “swell” Kool-Aid.

Talulah Whitehead, a visitor from Australia, views the “Altered States” exhibit at Houghton Library. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
plays softly in the background. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
Watergate Papers, anyone? Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
A sign stationed outside the exhibit bears a warning. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Adolph Hitler’s copy of “Kokain,” a 1927 novel banned by the Catholic Church. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
The collection includes Adolph Hitler’s copy of “Kokain,” a 1927 novel banned by the Catholic Church. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
The first African-American superhero title, “Ebon,” and the first underground comic written and drawn solely by women appear in the exhibit. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts, Houghton Library. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
Poster advertising a French musical in the 1920s (from left); May 1968 Paris student protest poster decorated with graffiti; poster for the film “Barbarella.” Images courtesy of Houghton Library
Julio Mario Santo Domingo Jr. Courtesy of Houghton Library
Inside Detective was a monthly magazine that took the “best stories from police records,” albeit in a highly sensationalized style. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
Cannabis illustration from 18th century botany book. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
German botanical and medical texts from 1613 and 1535 depict opium poppies. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
The punk rejection of establishment values is depicted in this short novel, written as a school project. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
The collection contains dozens of marijuana cookbooks. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Over winter break, Jensen Davis says, she will be back at Houghton to work on a paper she is writing about LSD’s therapeutic use in 1950s Hollywood. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

— Rebecca Coleman