In a move that many campaigners in the United States have long called for, two Asian art galleries that are part of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums in Washington DC will be rebranded. According to an announcement made in December by the world’s largest museum group and research centre, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and its sister institution, the Freer Gallery of Art, will now rebranded. Although the Smithsonian Institution was keen to point out that neither gallery will have an official name change, both will now be called the National Museum of Asian Art. This means that, from a public perspective, both galleries will henceforth be seen as a single museum even though their official names will remain in place for administrative purposes.
A new museum logo has already been unveiled, placed on promotional materials and official letterheads. There has also been a recently redeveloped website which has been launched using the new museum branding. However, the Washington-based newspaper made it clear that the buildings themselves will not undergo rebranding – on their exteriors, at least – which is telling because the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in particular, has the Sackler family name engraved in stone above its entranceway.
A Rational Move?
The renaming decision by the Smithsonian has been put down to a rationalisation process in Washington. After all, the Institution owns and manages two different galleries in the US capital devoted to Asian art and bringing them together does make a certain amount of practical sense. However, the fact that the official names will not be altered has led some critics to observe that the move could be nothing more than window dressing, something that has been done for public relations purposes due to the widespread criticism of the Sackler family.
After all, it was only a day or so before the Smithsonian Institution made its announcement that another venerated institution in the United States decided to break its public ties with the Sackler name. Tufts University, a private research university in Medford, Massachusetts, said in December that it would no longer use the name Sackler as a part of its school of medicine. Around the same time, the Science Museum in London was described in the UK press as hiding ‘dirty money’ it has received from the family’s philanthropy. Furthermore, earlier in the year, the National Portrait Gallery in the British capital also announced it would no longer accept a grant from the family worth up to £1 million, following sustained pressure from protest groups who campaign for public institutions to break their ties with the family and its pharmaceutical business.
The Sackler family faces multiple in lawsuits over allegations connected to the opioid crisis that has swept through much of North America. Some critics claim that the family has tried to buy some good PR as a result of its association with public institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, some see their efforts as not really being philanthropic at all, merely a way of deflecting criticism of the family’s alleged role in the crisis. Therefore, some have understandably claimed that the Smithsonian has responded to such criticisms by opting for the rebranding of two of its galleries.
Despite the comments from many protest groups who have been drawing attention to the Sackler family’s association with multiple institutions in the museum sector, the Smithsonian Institution remained adamant about its decision to rebrand. Lori Duggan, the museums’ Head of Operations and Communications said that the shift toward a unified brand did not represent a move away from the galleries’ real names. Instead, she claimed that the decision would offer attendees a better sense of the whole offering from the Smithsonian. “Our strategy is to build upon the strengths of these two galleries [so that they can]… serve as one national museum,” she said. Duggan went on to say that both institutions already have a common board of directors and that they share many of the same museum staff as well as budgetary arrangements. Whether, as the Smithsonian Institution claims, establishing a single brand helps to make for a more cohesive visitor experience or whether it deflects criticism of it by diminishing the presence of the Sackler family name is a matter of ongoing public debate, however.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.