Let’s talk about drugs: Poppi, the museum that Amsterdam was missing

by Steve Rickinson


With the highest concentration of museums in the world, Amsterdam offers no shortage of informative locations to reflect on its diverse cultural heritage. From art to fashion to cinema to sex, the physical museum space represents a seminal aspect of city’s identity, stimulating thought, debate, and dialogue across a wide range of issues, whether they are traditionally artistic or otherwise. Curiously – given its notoriety for cannabis, psychedelics, nightlife, and as a narcotic production center, another prominent aspect of the international Amsterdam brand – one area of discussion the city, and country, does not currently feature in a forum as such is a public institution offering education and resources on the issue of drug use and policy.

This month, however, a crowdfunding campaign launched looking to change this fact as the Mainline Foundation launched its Poppi initiative. Subtitled “Drugs Museum Amsterdam”, the initiative aims to offer the city and its visitors the threefold social impact of Education, Health, and Employment to (and for) those interested, associated with, or affected by, drug use. In introducing Poppi to +31 Mag, Mainline’s International Programme Director and Poppi Co Creator (alongside Mick Jonkman) Machteld Busz, says: “a museum like this would help the discussion and debate around pragmatic drug policy and help us talk rationally about them, engaging everyone with the topic”.

As a foundation, Stichting Mainline was established in 1990 as a response to the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, in particular affecting Amsterdam’s intravenous drug users. “Back then, drug use was very visible. There were areas in the city where you could not even walk through because they were so violent and chaotic”, Busz describes of the era. Since then, The Netherlands has gone on to adopt a harm reduction approach to problematic drug use organizations like Mainline employ with various degrees of success. “I think policy has taken a good turn in the sense that we established harm reduction programs, including consumption rooms, needle exchange programs, overdose prevention, and methadone programs,” Busz describes of the foundation’s approach. Now, “harm reduction is completely embedded in the Dutch health system. It is one of the pillars of our drug policy,” Busz says. “The Dutch public health response to problematic drug use can be used as an international example, which is a good reason to have a museum around drugs here in Amsterdam,” she continues.

For any museum, its space is a combination of permanent and traveling exhibitions, as well as educational facilities and provided resources. Given the illicit nature of most drugs, however, Poppi’s approach lies in a more interdisciplinary, cross-media approach. Through utilizing modern technology alongside historical artifacts, the museum looks to engage its patrons with information and experiences from all perspectives emphasizing informed decision-making and bypassing overly emotional ideology. “We look to bring all parties together,” Busz says when describing the ideological and policy divide between the health sector, law enforcement, and policymakers. “The time is right for a museum like this to collect experiences from places like Canada, US, Uruguay, The Netherlands, and even more conservative countries, to look, compare and be serious about changing policies,” she continues.

In describing the overall vision of Poppi as brand and space, Busz hints that the museum still being somewhat down the line: “after crowdfunding, we will start organizing different events. These can be pop up events around the city with virtual reality, but can also be theater exhibitions or documentary screenings; different art forms to provide different messages under the umbrella of Poppi. This allows us to gain more experience in the art scene and learn what our audience would like to see”. Of specific emphasis was Poppi’s Virtual Reality component, given he immersive, interactive nature of its in-your-face experience. On this Busz says, “[VR] would allow people to experience, not only, what it’s like to use drugs but to take people into local drug scenes. VR can really touch people’s emotions and give drug use a human face. It gets you to understand drug addiction, which can happen to anyone.”

The entire initiative looks to give back to Mainline and those who utilize its services with a cyclical revenue and employment approach. “The museum allows us to reach out to the public and educate people but also to hopefully establish a funding source where we can pay for the work we do,” Busz says before emphasizing Poppi’s employment element as the third and final component of the institution’s threefold aim. In hiring people with a background of addiction, offering them a place on the job market that wider Dutch society may not, Poppi also hopes todo its part in eliminating one of the major roadblocks both existing and recovering users may encounter – that of gainful employment. On this, she says, “Because the stigma associated with drugs people are pushed out of society and work is the best way to have to get people back into normal life.”

In any society, the nature of drug use and its multitude of causes and effects is a reality spectrum loaded with emotion, and something hardly existing as black & white. With Poppi, the aim is to replace this emotional romance with knowledge and fact through personal interaction with topics of health, criminality, and stigma. “We find it important to engage the general public with everything we can around the issue of drugs, not just the health aspect. This addresses the different substances that are out there, defining addiction, breaking taboos, and talking about drug policies,” Busz says.


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