The British Museum is the latest cultural institution to distance itself from the Sackler family, announcing today that it will be wiping the name from its galleries, rooms, and endowments. According to a press release, the decision was the result of a “mutual agreement” negotiated by the museum and the trustees of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation. A trace of the 30-plus-years collaboration between the museum and the foundation, however, remains: The Sackler name persists on the museum’s benefactors’ board and on a list of donors in its Great Court.
The British Museum received funds from the foundation started by Raymond Sackler, who acquired Purdue Pharma together with his brothers Arthur M. and Mortimer Sackler, from the 1990s until 2013. The embattled pharmaceutical company and OxyContin manufacturer has been sued for its role in the opioid epidemic by approximately 2,000 local governments across 23 states, with the latest settlement achieved just this month.
Among the British Museum spaces blemished by the Sackler name were the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Rooms, two plain meeting rooms available for commercial hire for “brainstorming sessions” and “breakout space,” and Rooms 57 through 59, which housed displays of the material culture of Neolithic farmers in the Levant. The family name was also memorialized in the museum’s Raymond and Beverly Sackler Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology, an annual keynote lecture on the latest research on Egypt and Nubia. Already, the Sackler name has been erased from the websites for these spaces and programs.
“The British Museum is grateful for the Foundation’s past support, and the Trustees appreciate their co-operation in coming to this agreement as we now move the Museum into a new era and present our incredible collections in different ways for new audiences,” George Osborne, chair of the British Museum, said in a statement.
Some were disheartened by the British Museum’s equivocation, such as co-director of art activist group Culture Unstained Chris Garrard, who tweeted, “Why can’t the British Museum bring itself to say what is in plain sight to everyone else — that association with the Sackler name crosses an ethical red line?”
Culture Unstained has pushed for the British Museum to end sponsorship deals with fossil fuel companies such as BP, and recently leaked documents showed that the museum was exploring a continuation of its partnership with the behemoth.
“With the British Museum about to decide whether to renew its BP sponsorship deal, its removal of the Sackler name shows that the museum can take an ethical stance on who it takes money from,” Garrard told Hyperallergic. “With BP still investing millions in new oil and gas, the museum must now also bring to an end this unethical partnership and remove BP’s name from the museum’s BP Lecture Theatre.”
Last month, members of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma reached an agreement with states to settle thousands of lawsuits for $6 billion, dedicated to aiding communities affected by the opioid crisis. The settlement includes a clause that allows institutions to drop the Sackler name without facing penalties, but states that they must do so without “disparag[ing] the Sacklers.”
The British Museum’s conciliatory tone is in line with that of several other institutions that have made similar moves in the last few months.
The Sackler name is falling from gallery walls worldwide like dominos: The Tate Modern in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were two major museums to recently drop the Sackler name, largely thanks to the efforts of activist groups like PAIN Sackler, led by artist Nan Goldin. The Louvre in Paris, the Serpentine Galleries in London, and universities including Yale, Tufts, and New York University are among the many others that have flocked from the family’s bald-faced attempts to “artwash” its crimes away.
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