Every 11 Minutes: Opium in Nineteenth Century China, The Contemporary Opiate Crisis, and the Peabody Essex Museum Collection

PEM’s recently reinstalled (opened fall 2019) Asian Export Art collection explores cross-cultural exchange and trade activity between Asia and the rest of the world. The gallery features more than 200 works of art made in diverse media by artists in China, Japan and South Asia.  These transcultural objects demonstrate the beauty and ingenuity that can be created through blending artistic traditions, materials and technologies. But the new installation also addresses a darker side of the story, the uncomfortable truth that many of these works of art were originally purchased with profits derived from the illegal opium trade. During the 1800s, millions of Indian and Chinese lives were devastated by opium, a foreshadowing of today’s opioid crisis. When the exhibition team assigned to work on the reinstallation first came together to discuss our ideas for the gallery, it was clear that the toll of opium was top of mind. Opium had always lurked in the background of the story we told about global trade, but we had never fully addressed the truly central role it played. We felt that the resonance with our present-day opioid crisis made that silence untenable. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 47,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in the United States in 2017. To put that number in perspective, it’s another life lost—someone’s mother or brother or partner or best friend—every eleven minutes. Too many families in Massachusetts—so many right in Salem—are touched by opioid addiction every day. We were committed to connecting history to the contemporary crisis and wanted to acknowledge these families, let them know they are not alone, and to make the gallery a welcoming place for them.  We placed the video in the central heart of the gallery, hoping that visitors would stop to watch and look differently at the art around them, better understand a dark history, and see those struggling with addiction in a new light.