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Smithsonian says no to senator’s request to strip Sackler name from museum

The Smithsonian says it is legally bound to keep the Sackler name on its Asian art museum. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Smithsonian Institution will not remove the Sackler name from its Asian art museum, despite a senator’s letter requesting that it do so.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) requested on June 19 that the Smithsonian strip the name of the family behind Purdue Pharma, the drug company that makes OxyContin, saying it “has no place in taxpayer funded public institutions.” In his letter, Merkley cited ongoing lawsuits alleging that members of the Sackler family were personally involved in the marketing practices of its blockbuster painkiller.

Sen. Merkley wants Smithsonian to drop Sackler name from museum

In a letter to Merkley dated Friday, new Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III reiterated the institution’s position that it is legally bound to keep the name of the late benefactor, Arthur M. Sackler, who, in 1982, donated 1,000 objects and $4 million toward the construction of the museum.

“The legal agreement signed between the Smithsonian and Arthur M. Sackler was in keeping with the Smithsonian’s recognition practices at the time and obligated the Smithsonian to designate the facility as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in perpetuity,” Bunch wrote. “For this reason the Smithsonian cannot remove the Sackler name from the Gallery without breaking this commitment.”

Bunch’s letter said that he and Merkley spoke on the phone last week. 

Bunch also said that he shares the senator’s concerns about the opioid crisis and that he hopes Merkley recognizes that the Smithsonian takes the issue seriously.

“The Sackler issue has been under examination at the institution for some time,” he wrote. “Please know that we appreciate that, in order to maintain and preserve the public trust, we must meet the highest ethical standards in all of our activities.”

Bunch also emphasized the timing of the gift in 1982, “nearly a decade and a half before the manufacture and marketing of OxyContin.”

The secretary also noted that in 2011, the Smithsonian changed its naming policies to limit naming rights to 20 years or until the next renovation of a space.