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Harvard Students Install a Memorial Site for Opioid Victims at Arthur M. Sackler Museum

The installation featured the names of 250 people who died from opioid overdoses recorded on the museum’s stairs.

The installation Remember Their Names at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum (photos courtesy of Gavin Moulton)

Last week, Tufts University in Boston became the first academic institution in the United States to remove the name of the Sackler family, owners of widely reproached opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, from one of its buildings. The university said that the decision was taken in response to the demands of students who found the Sackler name “objectionable” and “incongruous with the mission of the school” from which the name was removed. The next day, December 6, students at Harvard University followed with their own demand to do away with the Sackler name on one of the museums on the University’s campus with an art installation that honored people who were affected by the lethal drug OxyContin.

On the morning of last Friday, a group of students in the History of Art and Architecture department transformed the lobby of Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum into a memorial site dedicated to victims of the opioid crises in the Massachusetts area. Titled Remember Their Names, the installation featured the names of 250 people who died from opioid overdoses recorded on the museum’s stairs. A mock-up plaque with a black ribbon welcomed visitors to the museum with the text: “IN SOLEMNITY WE RECORD THE COMPLEXITY OF THE SACKLER LEGACY … WE MOURN AND HONOR THE VOICES SILENCED BY THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC.” The alternative plaque is modeled after an existing donor-recognition plaque dedicated to Arthur M. Sackler.

Along with installation, more than 30 students, faculty, museum workers, and members of the community who have been affected by the opioid epidemic gathered at the museum’s lobby to share stories and support each other.

The project was led by three students in the History of Art and Architecture department — Kaitlin Hao, Wendy Yu, and Samantha J. Meade — who developed the installation as an assignment for a class on art and social engagement with art history professor Suzanne Preston Blier. The three then joined forces with a larger group of about a dozen students from the department who have been planning an anti-opioid action at the museum since September.

The installation featured the names of 250 people who died from opioid overdoses on the museum’s stairs

The students told Hyperallergic that they had received permission to hold the action at the lecture hall at the museum, but were not permitted to use the museum’s lobby, were they finally installed their project. The university allowed the installation to remain at the museum lobby through Monday, but not without a confrontation between the students and officials at the department.

“We went in on Friday fully expecting to get arrested,” Hao, who conceived the idea for the project before collaborating with Yu and Meade, told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “I contacted my family beforehand and told them that I might be arrested.”

In an email, art history major Gavin Moulton told Hyperallergic, “Some (eventually empty) threats were made against us concerning the police, grades, and paying for damages.” Moulton added that the group was careful to use materials, such as painters cloth and painters tape, that would not damage the building.

Hyperallergic asked David Roxburgh, chair of the Harvard History of Art and Architecture department, if students were threatened with punishment for holding their protest at the museum’s lobby. Roxburgh sent Hyperallergic an email that read:

The Department of History of Art and Architecture is under the purview of the University at large and does not control the public areas of the multi-tenant building (including the stairwell and lobby) in which we are housed. We were able to reserve the large lower-level lecture hall beneath the lobby for the memorial and related activities stemming from the students’ work for Professor Blier’s course on the museum. The installation and memorial were thoughtful and beautifully mounted. It was a moving event. The student organizers had proposed its deinstallation on Friday December 6. We were happy to see the installation remain on the stairway through this Monday.

The protest was held peacefully, and the students were allowed to permanently hang their mock-up plaque in the vicinity of the original plaque that honors Arthur M. Sackler.

The student left a mock-up plaque inside the museum wall after their installation was removed

In April of this year, dozens of Harvard students and members of the public protested outside the museum with the demand to remove the Sackler name. The protesters held photos of family members and friends who lost their lives to the opioid. The protest followed a “die-in” action at the museum in July 2018 led by Nan Goldin, founder of the activist group PAIN Sackler. In March of this year, after receiving dozens of letters from mothers of opioid victims who urged him to cut ties with the Sacklers, University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in response that he was “deeply moved” by the letter, but that the University does not plan to shed Arthur Sackler’s name from the museum.

Harvard’s museum of Asian Art was opened in 1985 after a significant donation from Arthur M. Sackler, who died in 1987, almost a decade before the release of OxyContin. “Arthur had nothing to do with OxyContin,” his widow, Jillian Sackler, said in a statement provided to Hyperallergic following Tufts’s decision to remove his name from its school of medicine. “The man has been dead for 32 years. He did not profit from OxyContin, and none of his philanthropic gifts were in any way connected to opioids or to deceptive medical marketing – which he likewise had nothing to do with. It deeply saddens me to witness Arthur being blamed for actions taken by his brothers and other OxySacklers.”

“Harvard does not have plans to remove Dr. Sackler’s name from the museum,” a university spokesperson told Hyperallergic in an email statement, adding that, “The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation does not fund the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard.”

“The Sackler name is now synonymous with the opioid crisis,” Hao said in response.

“The fact that there is nothing within the building and that there has not been an official statement released from Harvard University acknowledging that indirect yet inextricable tie is very irresponsible,” Hao added. The student said that the group, knowing the Sackler name is not going to come down anytime in the foreseeable future, focused their action to honor the victims rather than directly pursue removal of the Sackler name, although they haven’t abandoned that cause.

“After seeing how well this event went, it has encouraged us to go after these issues that we were told they were impossible to go after,” said Hao. “This is just the first event of many to come.”

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