Activists at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London performing a die-in on Saturday, November 16. Courtesy of P.A.I.N.

Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N. Target Director Tristram Hunt During V&A Museum Protest

Artist Nan Goldin and the activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) stormed the Victoria and Albert Museum in London around 1 PM on Saturday, November 16, in protest of the institution’s defense of the Sackler family, members of which are embroiled in thousands of lawsuits in the United States over the aggressive marketing of OxyContin, a powerful painkiller that is manufactured by their Connecticut-based company Purdue Pharma.

A group of thirty artists and activists performed a die-in in the institution’s public courtyard, which was added during a revamp of the museum in 2017. The Sackler-backed project involved the paving of the area with more than 10,000 porcelain tiles that were handmade by a company in the Netherlands, the Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum ceramics factory. Funding for the courtyard, which features a café and an oculus, came from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, which suspended all philanthropic giving in the UK earlier this year. The location of the action was also significant for P.A.I.N, which has criticized the Sacklers for funding “decadent architecture” over treatment centers and overdose reversal medication. 

The demonstrators unfurled a massive banner, which read “Abandon the Sackler name,” and chanted phrases like “Sackler money, blood money,” while tossing printed United States currency that was splattered with red ink. The fake $1-bills featured an OxyContin pill where George Washington’s head is supposed to be and included other key changes such as the line, “In Pharma we trust.” While the protest centered around the activists’ demand that the Sackler name be removed from the museum’s education center and courtyard, it also targeted director Tristram Hunt, who has publicly made statements in support of the Sackler family after the backlash against their role in the US opioid crisis had already gained momentum.

 “We, P.A.I.N., are demonstrating today at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to denounce the museum’s support of the Sackler family,” said a statement issued by P.A.I.N. “The Sacklers are responsible for one of the most devastating health crises of our time. . . . As OxyContin spreads outside the US, to the UK and beyond, so too does the familiar pattern of addiction and death. The UK has the third fastest growing rate of opioid use in the world. One in eight adults in England were prescribed opioids in 2018. 41.4 million opioid prescriptions were written in the UK in 2017. Each day, five people die of overdose in the UK.”

In July, Hunt had defended the museum’s continued relationship with the Sacklers in an interview with The Guardian. A former Labour Party politician, who served as a member of parliament from 2010 to 2017, Hunt said that the institution was “proud to have been supported by the Sacklers” over the years and that it will not be “taking names down or denying the past.” Dame Theresa Sackler, a longtime trustee of the museum, will finish her tenure as board member this fall. When Theresa Sackler’s foundation halted its grantmaking activities, Hunt said he respected the decision.

Goldin has denounced Hunt's decision to speak out in support of the Sacklers. “The V&A must stop giving cultural legitimacy and social stature to the family who unleashed this crisis, helping them escape consequences for lives lost,” she said. “The Sacklers are getting away with murder. Don’t let your legacy be tarnished by their name.”

In response to the action, an official at the V&A museum issued the following statement: “As a national museum and a space for civic debate, the V&A fully supports the public’s right to a peaceful protest. We are grateful for the generosity of our donors, which contributes towards our world-class public program, supports the expert care needed for the collection, and improves our facilities so they can be enjoyed by future generations.”


Fake OxyContin bottles and printed US one-dollar bills that were used by demonstrators during a protest at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Saturday, November 16. Courtesy of P.A.I.N.