CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A group of about 100 Harvard University students staged a die-in at the school’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum today, April 20, demanding the removal of the opioid manufacturing family’s name from the institution’s walls.
The students were shepherded by members of the advocacy group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) Sackler, who held their last action at the museum almost five years ago. Since then, the group has reaped numerous successes, persuading major museums and universities in the United States and Europe to separate themselves from the Sacklers. But they still haven’t persuaded the Harvard Art Museums — a triad of museums, one of which is named after a Sackler — the last in the country to continue displaying the disgraced family’s name.
PAIN’s founder and leader, artist Nan Goldin, was not present at the action but she spoke with students via Zoom last night after a screening of Laura Poitras’s documentary about her, All the Beauty and Bloodshed, at the school’s Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies. The bitter irony of Harvard celebrating Goldin and her group’s successes while maintaining the Sackler name glared as footage of PAIN’s 2018 protest on campus played on the screen. “Everybody needs to put their bodies on the line now,” Goldin said to a packed auditorium. “Things are so dark, and they’re getting darker by the day.”
Only a handful of students attending the screening knew of the surprise action at the Sackler Museum planned for the next day. An hour before the action at 12:30pm, they received an email blast with a call to join the protest. Dozens of them showed up at the museum’s atrium, where they hurled fake OxyContin vials and prescriptions to the floor and chanted slogans including “shame on Sackler,” “take down their name,” and “Sacklers lie, people die” — words that have reverberated across PAIN’s protests around the world.
“Harvard University, what are you waiting for?” asked undergraduate student Claire Yoo, who emceed the action together with PAIN’s Harry Cullen. “Sackler is just one name to remove,” she continued, listing several buildings on campus named after known enslavers. Harvard’s ties to slavery were highlighted in a damning 2022 report by the school, exposing that 70 individuals were enslaved by its former presidents, leaders, faculty, and staff. Recently, students circulated a petition calling to rename the John Winthrop House, a dormitory building christened after the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who enslaved at least seven people. His descendant, also named John Winthrop, enslaved two individuals while teaching at Harvard and serving as its acting president for one year.
“If we remove one name, we can remove them all,” said Yoo.
Jason Newton, a spokesperson for Harvard University, told Hyperallergic in an email comment: “The university has established a process for considering de-naming spaces, programs, or other entities. A proposal to de-name the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Building has been submitted and is currently under review. ”
After the die-in, the students relocated to the museum’s steps, practically shutting down the museum on a free-admission Thursday. There, they heard speeches from PAIN members and their peers, and continued their chants.
Not all passersby approved of the protest. “It’s an art museum!” yelled a man who drove by. Another spectator, a Harvard professor who declined to disclose his name, told Hyperallergic that “not all Sacklers are bad,” repeating the common argument that Arthur Sackler died before his brothers Mortimer and Raymond developed OxyContin, the highly addictive drug that Purdue Pharma is notorious for marketing and over-prescribing.
That’s also the opinion of Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, who said in 2019 that removing the Sackler name would be “inappropriate.” PAIN member Megan Kapler has been rebutting this defense of Arthur Sackler for years.
“He was an absolute mastermind of medical advertising,” she said during a Q&A session after the film screening. “He was the genius behind Valium and wrote the blueprint of what his brothers would go on to use for OxyContin.”
Bridget O’Kelly and Jay Garg, two students who filed a petition to rename the Sackler Museum, said they’re hopeful that Harvard’s incoming president, Claudine Gay, will bring a change of policy.
“We have a huge amount of support from faculty and the museum staff but they’re not expressing it publicly because they don’t want to get in trouble with their departments or lose their jobs,” said Garg.
Meanwhile, Harvard announced last week that it has named its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after conservative megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin, who gave the school $300 million. Griffin has also given $5 million to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s political action committee.
“It takes very little time for Harvard to name a building after a corrupt billionaire, but a long time to take it down,” Anna Correll, one of the students at the protest, told Hyperallergic.
Editor’s Note, 4/20/2023 7:53pm EDT: This article has been updated with a comment from a Harvard University spokesperson.