CAMBRIDGE — To paraphrase William Faulkner, the past is never really past. Harvard Art Museums — unusually, explicitly, emphatically — are currently making sure of that with “Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade,” an airing out of its Chinese art collection, on view until Jan. 14.
To put a fine point on it, the museums are hosting two workshops (Nov. 19 and Dec 1) on how to administer the naxalone hydrochloride nasal spray Narcan to opioid overdose victims — an intervention that, if done quickly enough, can save their lives.
This would be an admirable bit of public programming under any circumstance. The statistics on opioid overdose and death in Massachusetts alone are bleak: in 2022, 2,357 people died, a 2.5 percent increase from the previous year. But the workshops flow from a dizzyingly unconventional exhibition that is equal parts history lesson, confessional, and atonement.
It sounds odd to say, given the context, but “Objects of Addiction” is one of my favorite things: an exhibition that grapples with the past to illuminate the present, however painful that may be. That past is also the museums’ own: 19th-century opium-trade-generated wealth underpins Harvard Art Museums. To the museums’ credit, the exhibition puts that fact on plain view.
Long, explicative wall text revisits the names of the three museums — the Fogg, Sackler, and Busch-Reisinger — that merged into one in the early 1980s. And it makes clear that the amalgamated Harvard Art Museums veils some unsavory histories. The Fogg Museum was named for William Hayes Fogg, an enterprising Boston-based China trader (the museums’ term) who built his fortune in the 19th century during the height of the opium trade (no surviving records of him trading opium exist). The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, was named for its benefactor, a psychiatrist whose younger brothers founded now-notorious Purdue Pharma. (Arthur M. Sackler was not involved in Purdue and died in 1987, before OxyContin came to market and fed a public health crisis, ultimately forcing the company into a $6 billion settlement.) The amalgamated museums’ Quincy Street building was put there by its early-20th-century director Edward W. Forbes — yes, that Forbes; Edward’s grandfather, John Murray Forbes, had built the family’s vast fortune partly on the opium trade in China. (Another museum, the Ipswich Museum, gets a shout-out here for being the beneficiary of Ipswich’s Heard family, another Massachusetts opium profiteer.)
So, when the museums say in their exhibition text that the show “explores the entangled histories” of opium and Chinese art, it’s personal. It makes clear that addiction has ever been a robust business model, so long as morality is cast aside. That was as true in Qing-era China as it is now in the US, where 42 state attorneys general are currently suing Meta for designing features that hook children on Facebook and Instagram. “Objects of Addiction” deliberately tears down the curtain between the museums’ spectacular collections and how they were built; it makes you question the very walls on which they hang.
The exhibition pulls no punches, right from the start: front and center, a 19th- or early-20th-century opium pipe fashioned from water buffalo horn, metal, and ceramic floats spot-lit in a vitrine, a dark symbol of the devastation it wrought. Behind it, Basilius Beslerfour’s four botanical poppy prints — sharply-drawn in dusty red and deep green —– complete the equation: This becomes that.
It’s a gateway into a brief, intense chapter of history. In a little more than two decades, China fought two wars with foreign powers over an illicit opium trade that had plunged a 10th of its population — at the time, 40 million people — into addiction. European merchants had been trading in China for decades when addiction ballooned in the 1820s, fueled largely by the British East India Company’s importation of opium from India.
It had become a key commodity in the company’s exchange for products like Chinese tea and silk, both booming markets back home. Amid escalating social ills, Qing officials were desperate for solutions. They banned opium imports in 1839, touching off confrontations at the few treaty ports foreign merchants were allowed to access. With a key cog of its global economy in peril, the British navy arrived in 1840 and promptly brought Qing forces down. In 1842, Great Britain decreed that it would not only continue the importation of opium, but that it would expand the treaty ports and take total control of the island of Hong Kong, which remained under British rule until 1997.
In the 1850s, with the Qing government trying to suppress a domestic rebellion, Great Britain joined forces with France and broke China open to foreign incursion completely; a final, devastating blow came in 1860, when French and British forces stormed Beijing and plundered the emperor’s summer palace, burning it to the ground. A pair of prints here captures the ransacking, and its lingering aftermath. One, published in the French “l’illustration, Journal Universel” in July 1860 depicts throngs of troops parading around the palace grounds. Mo Ce’s “Yuanming Yuan,” 1982, is a dark silhouette of the palace’s smoldering columns, a symbol for the affront of foreign devastation that still seethes in the minds of many Chinese today. The Chinese opium trade waned in the early 20th century; the communist revolution in 1949 eradicated it completely.
“Objects of Addiction” is full of objects, many of them remarkable. “Children at Play,” a life-size scroll painting from the 18th or 19th century, depicts a Chinese woman attending to small children “in the style of Giuseppe Castiglione.” An Italian artist and 18th-century Qing court painter, Castiglione exemplified the burgeoning cosmopolitanism that robust foreign trade had brought to China at the time.
A spectacular ink-on-paper handscroll from 1688, early in the Qing era, lies unfurled in a nearby vitrine. It’s an exemplary cultural treasure of its time, but curators put the emphasis as much on how as what. Accompanying text explains that the scroll was bequeathed by Harvard curator and librarian Philip Hofer, who had bought it from a dealer in Hong Kong in 1976. How the dealer, Ma Jizuo, came to own it “is unknown,” the text says; but by now, there are plenty of clues.
The Qing government, weakened by the opium wars, would be dealt a killing blow in the Boxer rebellion of 1900, an uprising against Imperial rule and foreign presence. A coalition of eight countries, including the United States, sent troops to crush it — and protect their own commercial interests. The rebellion was defeated in 1901; the Qing era would be unseated by 1909, ending two milennia of imperial rule. In the ensuing chaos, enterprising archelogists and antiquities dealers both foreign and domestic plundered Chinese cultural sites and established pipelines to western museums only too eager to receive them.
Among them, of course, was Harvard. A corner of the exhibition is devoted to some of the museums’ most precious objects: a roughly 1,500-year-old stone bust of Buddha, and a pair of early-eighth-century Tang-era fragments of wall paintings broken from ancient temples in Dunhuang and Gansu provinces by Langdon Warner, a Harvard-educated curator who joined the legions of pillagers profiting from the power vacuum in post-Qing China.
They’re objects of great cultural significance, and for Harvard, of shame. Warner “left permanent scars” on the Chinese cultural landscape, the exhibition text reads. “The objects serve as a reminder of the irreversible damage wrought by some pioneers of the Chinese art field.” “Objects of Addiction” reminds us not only of those scars, but the legacy of the opium trade itself, still creating fresh wounds even today.
OBJECTS OF ADDICTION: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade
Through Jan. 14. Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. 617-495-9400, harvardartmuseums.org