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‘Objects of Addiction’: Community-Focused Curation at the Harvard Art Museums

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This National Recovery Month, the Harvard Art Museums welcomes its community back for the academic year with the opening of “Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade.” The fall exhibition, developed by Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art Sarah Laursen, is a timely call for viewers to examine their own ties to the entangled histories of the opioid crisis and art collecting, exploring the turbulent and interconnected streams of Western opium into China in late 19th century and 20th century Chinese art shipped to the United States.

“Objects of Addiction” greets visitors with an overview of the context of the opium trade, outlining the interconnected histories of China, the United States, and Europe in the sales of Indian opium in China in the 18th century and the importation of Chinese tea to Europe and the United States. This first of three galleries places popular Chinese export art, such as porcelains and paintings, in illuminating conversation with opium-related items, including an opium pipe made of water buffalo horn which confronts viewers at the entrance to the space.

The gallery’s objects illustrate not only the temporal and geographical progression of commerce, but also the calamitous effects of opium on the people of China through documentary materials, contemporary political cartoons, and photography. Importantly, the exhibition defends space for the diverse voices of individuals involved in all sides of the opium story: A video loop and audio wands present perspectives and quotations from the historical figures embedded in the wall text of the exhibition, allowing for more direct engagement with the ethical questions underlying their involvement in the opium trade.

The second gallery delves deeper into the history of imperial art collecting and the growing demand for Chinese art in the Western world in the wake of the Opium Wars, trading rights conflicts between Western powers, and the enduring reign of the Qing dynasty. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from confronting difficult questions regarding past collection practices and modern responsibilities of ethical collecting, probing the establishment of 20th century Chinese art collections in Massachusetts — including at Harvard’s own Fogg Museum. Though many of the objects belong to the Harvard Art Museums’ Arthur M. Sackler Museum, named for a patriarch of the hotly contended Sackler pharmaceutical family, no work in the exhibition or broader Harvard Art Museums collections was collected, gifted, or funded by Arthur M. Sackler.

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The third gallery, “Opioids Then and Now,” leans further into the parallels between the Chinese opioid crisis and that of modern Massachusetts, in which overdose deaths currently exceed 2,300 annually. Visitors are offered an opportunity to pause to learn about the effects of addiction on the brain, as well as review information on life-saving prevention and harm reduction via an approachable animated video loop and a selection of recent books.

The legacies of addiction highlighted in this section are far from static — accordingly, neither is the exhibition. Museum-goers are invited to add their own stories of the impact of substance use disorder to the gallery, posting their experiences on a bulletin board within the display space or privately depositing them for archival preservation. These postcard-like vignettes of modern stories populating the gallery wall make a powerful, personal statement of this exhibition’s relevance to visitors’ own communities. The exhibition’s strength lies in its treatment of visitors not as viewers of distant history, but as living stories with the power to shape the narrative of addiction.

Associated programming is designed to facilitate continued community conversations beyond the gallery around such topics as the impact of the Opium Wars on present political and economic landscapes, the state of the New England opioid crisis, anti-Chinese immigration policies, and the nuances of Chinese art collecting in Massachusetts.

Yet the exhibition goes beyond isolated conversations, instead joining the effort to prevent deaths from opioid overdoses through Narcan training sessions hosted in conjunction with the Cambridge Public Health Department and Somerville Health and Human Services. Additionally, drama therapy workshops hosted at the museums by the artist collective 2nd Act explore conceptions of substance use disorder.

“Objects of Addiction” is shaped by collaboration and community: In addition to partnerships with community organizations, many of the 100+ object displays are made possible by collaboration in object loans from other Harvard museums and libraries in addition to external loans from the Forbes House Museum, Ipswich Museum, and Mr. and Mrs. James E. Breece III.

The exhibition’s development also included community feedback sessions with Harvard students, faculty, and staff, local experts, and community members. Notably, Harvard students Emily Axelsen ’23, Allison R. Chang ’23, and Madison Stein ’24 worked with curator Sarah Laursen in the articulation of the exhibition’s messaging and programming.

Thoughtfully infused with diverse community perspectives, the exhibition returns to the community with integral support and resources. The Harvard Art Museums’ demonstrated investment in the communities it serves comes on the heels of their announcement of free admission for all visitors beginning earlier this summer, reiterating the museums’ “deep commitment to serving all audiences.

Rather than presenting a sealed history of the past, “Objects of Addiction” demands consideration of a poignant story weaving through the lives of its present audiences.

The exhibition will remain on display through Jan. 14, 2024, in the Special Exhibitions Gallery on Level 3 of the Harvard Art Museums, reminding viewers that the histories of opioid addiction continue even beyond the gallery exit.

—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at marin.gray@thecrimson.com.

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