The Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma banked billions on the backs of countless people whose lives were wrecked or in many cases cut short due to addiction to its notorious flagship painkiller OxyContin, have finally become outcast pariahs on par with the Harvey Weinsteins and R. Kellys of the world, as has always been deserved.
As we reported in April, when students at Tufts University organizing under the name Sack Sackler made headlines about their efforts to wipe that campus clean of the family’s name:
Last month saw three big moves against the Sacklers in the art world in which family members have used money to gain friends and benefactor visibility for decades. Following protests like one at the Guggenheim in New York in which demonstrators littered the museum with symbolic prescription slips, that institution, as well as the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London, announced that it would no longer take Sackler drug money.
More recently, students at Harvard University have joined the chorus, specifically targeting the Arthur M. Sackler building lobby and lecture hall on that campus. As Tufts was announcing last week that it plans to “remove [the] Sackler name from [its] medical school facilities and programs” and will “create [an] endowment to support prevention and treatment of substance abuse and addiction,” on Dec 6, one city over in Cambridge, Harvard students joined community members and City Councilor Quinton Zondervan in unveiling a pointed art installation on the topic. What follows is a description of their project, excerpted from materials provided by the group behind Remember Their Names.
As it currently stands, the Arthur M. Sackler building is a monument to a man who bears a name with inextricable ties to the devastating opioid epidemic currently sweeping the United States. Remember Their Names hopes to disrupt the overwhelming presence of the Sackler family within the building and invites the voices and perspectives of the people the Sacklers harmed the most.
This artwork consists of strips of the white material, each placed in flush with the front portion of each step of the stairway in the Arthur M. Sackler Building. Each white strip contains the name of someone affected by the opioid epidemic (mostly people who lost their lives, but also some survivors), which were collected from Harvard community members and local communities in Massachusetts (many shared information to be used through an online submission form).
In order to collect these names, we partnered with Team Sharing, a national organization of parents who have lost a child to Substance Use Disorder that led a protest outside of the Sackler building last April. We also partnered with Sack Sackler, a student-led group at Tufts University campaigning to cut that school’s financial ties with the Sackler family. Remaining names and certain testimonials from victim’s families will be printed out and displayed in the windows and alcoves that frame the staircase, creating an environment that envelops the viewer with the names and the individual stories they evoke. In total, there will be approximately 350 names of victims from the Massachusetts area and beyond included in the artwork.
A segment of purple is located at the center of each strip; when stacked on top of each other, these strips evoke a purple ribbon, the symbol of opioid addiction awareness. The purple ribbon guides the viewer’s sightline, emphasizing the names. This ribbon continues onto the floor below the staircase, up the nearest wall, over Arthur M. Sackler’s current plaque, where it leads to the model of the new plaque, which would be dedicated to victims of the opioid epidemic and acknowledge the complexity of the issue. We have designed the plaque to visually and verbally respond to the current plaque dedicated to Arthur Sackler, located in the lobby.
By filling and surrounding the building with names, the Sackler’s legacy is temporarily diminished. The building has been transformed into a site that physically acknowledges all perspectives and experiences of a complicated, devastating issue. We will leave these names up as long as the building and the university permits, which could range from hours to several days or weeks. This ephemeral artwork attempts to encourage Harvard University to recognize these issues in a permanent way: the complications of the building’s name, its attachment to the opioid crisis, and its obligation to acknowledge and honor victims.
Finally, Remember Their Names works toward a larger goal of raising funds for the installation of a permanent memorial plaque for victims within the Sackler Building and the Sackler wing of the Harvard Art Museums. This plaque would allow this building and its complicated history to be a site of remembrance, and would raise awareness about a national tragedy. Hopefully, such a plaque can also prompt other museums and educational institutions to reexamine how their funding practices can better represent the interests of the communities and the public that they serve.
Anyone with questions or concerns about the project can contact [email protected].
To contribute the name of a loved one who has been affected by the opioid crisis, visit