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Destroying Whiskey Stills, original 1926 Thompson Brothers Photography Studio, Knoxville, Courtesy of C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library.

The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture opens the new exhibition Pick Your Poison: Intoxicating Pleasures and Medical Prescriptions on March 23. It will be on display until August 19.

Pick Your Poison examines how mind-altering drugs have been used throughout the history of America. Featuring more than 40 medicines, advertisements, historic and popular culture documents and books, video footage, and paraphernalia, the exhibition explores why some drugs remain socially acceptable while others are outlawed because of their toxic, and intoxicating, characteristics.

These classifications have shifted at different times in history because of social and historical factors, and they will continue to change. The exhibition explores some of the factors that have shaped the changing definition of some of our most potent drugs—alcohol, tobacco, opium, cocaine, and marijuana—from medical miracle to social menace.

“It is easy to assume that drugs that have been broadly accepted in American history, such as alcohol or tobacco, were always embraced by the public and that now-illegal drugs like cocaine and opium have always been shunned by the medical community,” said Catherine Shteynberg, museum assistant director and curator. “In fact, this history is tremendously complicated, with social, market, and medical factors changing our attitudes toward different drugs over time. This exhibition examines some of the socio-political factors that make the drug landscape so complex.”

The exhibit includes many 19th-century American medicines and ephemera, such as patent medicines containing cannabis; advertisements for baby teething medicine containing opium, and a Coke bottle whose contents would have had included cocaine. Viewers will also see a whiskey still and opium-smoking paraphernalia, as well as film clips that explore the cultural stereotypes associated with particular drugs. A 19th-century smoking cessation gum, a photograph of Prohibition efforts in Knoxville, and the opioid overdose medicine naloxone demonstrate attempts to prohibit or reduce the harm of drugs.

These objects and the dozens of others in the exhibition come from the museum’s permanent collections as well as UT Libraries, the Museum of East Tennessee History, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sounds, the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum, and private lenders.

Exhibition programming will include two speakers:

  • Thursday, April 12—Monica Black, associate professor and associate head of UT’s Department of History, will speak on the rise of modern drug development, 5:30 p.m., McClung Museum Auditorium
  • Monday, April 16—Stephanie Vanterpool, assistant professor in the Division of Pain Medicine of UT Medical Center’s Department of Anesthesiology, will host a 30-minute TED-style talk, “Pain and Addiction in East Tennessee: A History and Plan for the Opioid Crisis,” followed by a town hall discussion and Q&A, 5:30 p.m., McClung Museum Auditorium

The museum will also offer free family programming focused on medicinal plants and the natural world, as well as health:

  • Monday, May 14—“May Flowers,” free stroller tour, 10 a.m. Register online.
  • Saturday, May 19, “Let’s Plant It!” free family fun day, 1–4 p.m. 
  • Saturday, August 11, “Healthy Mind, Healthy Body,” free family fun day, 1–4 p.m.
  • Monday, August 13, “Kids on the Move,” free stroller tour, 10 a.m. Register online.

The exhibition is produced by the McClung Museum and co-curated by Catherine Shteynberg with content provided by the US National Library of Medicine and Manon Parry of the University of Amsterdam.

Pick Your Poison: Intoxicating Pleasures and Medical Prescriptions is presented by Roswitha Haas and the late Arthur Haas. Additional support is provided by Helen Baghdoyan and Ralph Lydic, Knox County, the City of Knoxville, and the Arts and Heritage Fund.

The McClung Museum is located at 1327 Circle Park Drive. Museum admission is free, and the museum’s hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Groups may schedule tours by calling 865-974-2144 or emailing

Free two-hour museum parking passes are available from the parking information booth at the entrance to Circle Park Drive on weekdays by request. Free parking is available on Circle Park Drive on a first-come, first-served basis on weekends. Free public transportation to the museum is also available via the Knoxville Trolley Vol Line.

For more information about the McClung Museum and its collections and exhibits, visit


Catherine Shteynberg (865-974-6921,

Stacy Palado (865-974-2143,