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Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade

September 15, 2023 @ 10:00 am - January 14, 2024 @ 5:00 pm


How did the sale of opium in China by Massachusetts merchants in the 19th century contribute to a growing appetite for Chinese art at Harvard at the start of the 20th century?

Objects of Addiction explores the entwined histories of the opium trade and the Chinese art market between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Opium and Chinese art, acquired through both legal and illicit means, had profound effects on the global economy, cultural landscape, and education—and in the case of opium, on public health and immigration—that still reverberate today.

The first section of the exhibition examines the origins of the opium trade, the participation of Massachusetts traders, and opium’s devastating impact on the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and the Chinese people. Works presented here include smoking paraphernalia, an opium account book, and photographs, along with mass media illustrations critiquing the use and sale of opium.

The second section highlights the history of imperial art collecting in China and demonstrates the growing appetite for Chinese art in Europe and the United States after the Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60). Artworks from Massachusetts-based private and public collections show the shift in taste at this time from export ceramics and paintings to palace treasures and archaeological materials, including ancient bronzes and jades unearthed from tombs and Buddhist sculptures chiseled from cave temple walls. Through the histories of museum directors, professors, and donors, this section looks critically at the sources of Harvard’s Chinese art collection.

A special section of the exhibition investigates parallels between China’s opium crisis and the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts today. We invite visitors to share their thoughts and personal experiences in this space. A range of public programs throughout the fall will encourage community discussion around the opioid crisis, the effects of the Opium Wars on U.S.–China relations, the role of opium in Chinese exclusion in the United States, and art collecting practices. In addition, the artist collective 2nd Act will present a series of substance use prevention workshops, and the Cambridge Public Health Department will host trainings on the use of naloxone (Narcan) to reverse opioid overdoses.


September 15, 2023 @ 10:00 am
January 14 @ 5:00 pm
Event Category:


Harvard Art Museums
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Curated by Sarah Laursen, the Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art at the Harvard Art Museums


Harvard Art Museums
32 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
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