News Register for our weekly news digest here.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon Urges Smithsonian to Remove Sackler Name from Museum

Oregon senator Jeff Merkley has added his voice to the growing chorus of activists who want the Sackler name to be removed from museums and universities in the United States. The Washington Post reports that the lawmaker sent a letter to the Smithsonian Institution’s new secretary, Lonnie Bunch, on Wednesday that demands the institution drop the name from a museum founded by Arthur M. Sackler.

“The Sackler family hooked thousands of Americans on OxyContin through aggressive and misleading marketing tactics and profited from one of the deadliest public health crises in our country,” the letter reads. “I ask that you remove the name from the gallery.” Merkley said that constituents who have described “the carnage these drugs have done to our state” led him to write to the Smithsonian. Earlier this month, Merkley introduced a bill that would impose a tax on drug companies in order to fund opioid treatments.

While anger over the opioid crisis—and the Sacklers’ role in it—is at an all-time high, Jillian Sackler, Arthur’s widow, has repeatedly called for protesters and the press to stop using the blanket designation “the Sackler family” when discussing or writing about the opioid crisis since not all members of the family are associated with Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the opioid. She has also consistently defended her late husband, whose marketing genius boosted sales of the drug.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on April 11, she wrote: “Purdue Pharma in its current form was founded by Arthur’s younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, four years after his death. None of the 1,600-plus lawsuits filed against Purdue Pharma, members of the Sackler family, or others in the opioid business names Arthur or his heirs as defendants. . . . Arthur is not here to answer back, but I can tell you that blaming him for OxyContin’s marketing, or for any other wrongdoing by the pharmaceutical industry, is as ludicrous as blaming the inventor of the mimeograph for email spam.”

Jillian has also argued that Arthur’s descendants haven’t benefited from the sales of OxyContin. However, a report published by The Atlantic last year states that the estate of Arthur Sackler received a nearly $20 million payment from Purdue Pharma’s companies in 1997, one year after the drug appeared on the market, which, according to the magazine, suggests that his heirs have at least benefited indirectly from OxyContin sales.

Merkley’s letter also coincides with Vanity Fair’s publication of an exclusive interview with David Sacker, who served on Purdue Pharma’s board of directors from 2012 to 2018. In the article, David said that his family’s silence on the controversy has been problematic. “We have not done a good job of talking about this,” he said. “That’s what I regret the most. . . . Facts will show we didn’t cause the crisis, but we want to help.”

The backlash against the Sacklers has led major cultural institutions to declare that they will no longer accept funding from the family. The wave of announcements—from the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Tate, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum—followed a fierce campaign led by photographer and activist Nan Goldin, who organized various protests, including at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which was established in 1982, following Arthur Sackler’s gift of one thousand objects and $4 million to the institution.

Smithsonian secretary Lonnie Bunch has said that he intends to respond to Merkley’s letter later this week.