The British Museum has acknowledged it used Yilin Wang’s translations of Chinese poetry in a major exhibition without permission or credit and has apologized for doing so.
The apology and acknowledgement are part of a settlement agreement between the museum and Wang after translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry were used in historical exhibition “China’s Hidden Century.” Wang’s poetry translations were used in a video presentation and exhibition signage, and published in a catalogue without permission, compensation, or credit.
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The British Museum’s large-print guide explains that the 300-work exhibition “is the result of a four-year research project, undertaken by over 100 scholars from 14 countries.” The exhibition’s organizers, British Museum Chinese ceramics curator Jessica Harrison-Hall and University of London modern Chinese history professor Julia Lovell, also received a grant of more than $917,000 (£719,000) from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Wang published a extensive thread on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, demanding all their translations to be removed and “all materials pertaining to the exhibit (including the exhibition books, all video/photo/display materials, all signage, all digital or print materials such as brochures, and anywhere else where translations have appeared), unless the museum makes a proper offer to compensate me and the compensation is given immediately” on June 19. This prompted the British Museum to remove the translations and Qiu Jin’s poetry from the exhibition on June 20.
On July 10, Wang raised £17,380 ($22,400) on the fundraising platform CrowdJustice, enough to retain legal representation at the London law firm Howard Kennedy LLP and file a claim against the British Museum in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC).
On August 4, the British Museum issued a press statement acknowledging it was “reviewing the permissions process it has in place for temporary exhibitions, particularly with regard to translations, to ensure that there is a timely and robust methodology underpinning our clearance work and our crediting of contributors going forward.”
The statement further notes that the British Museum “currently does not have a policy specifically addressing the clearance of translations and, as part of its review, will ensure that translations are specifically addressed in its clearances policies and that translators are appropriately credited in future. The Museum will complete its review by the end of this year and will implement appropriate policies and procedures to address any gaps identified in its review.”
“It’s very surprising to me that such a large institution does not have such a policy,” Wang told ARTnews in a written statement on August 7. “I hope that the British Museum follows through on their commitment to create a clearance process for translations in the future by the end of this year and to take concrete steps to ensure that the mistake does not happen again.
Wang said outgoing British Museum director Hartwig Fischer reached out to them on July 11 with a proposal “matching the reasonable terms that I had proposed to them several times before launching my legal fundraiser.”
“I appreciate that the museum has come around,” said Wang. “It is frustrating that this did not happen until I went through all the trouble to fundraise and obtain legal representation.”
Wang said their experience with the British Museum showed them “the power of the collective in holding institutions accountable”; a lesson that museums, organizations, and publications should always obtain permission for the use of copyrighted translations; as well as the importance of naming translators and paying them professional fees for their work.
As a part of the settlement, the British Museum has agreed to reinstate Wang’s translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry in the exhibition, with appropriate credit and professional payment, by August 11.
The museum has also obtained full permission from Wang for the translation of Qiu Jin’s poem “A River of Crimson: A Brief Stay in the Glorious Capital” for display on its website and reinstallation at the physical exhibition of “China’s Hidden Century” in the future.
“I am glad that more readers will be able to see my translations, with credit given for the first time, and am glad that more visitors will be able to learn about Qiu Jin’s wonderful poetry,” Wang wrote.
While the terms of the financial payment between the British Museum and Wang were not disclosed to ARTnews, Wang said that the museum agreed to make an additional payment matching their licensing fee payment to support translators of Sinophone poetry. “I hope my donations can help fund a series of workshops with a focus on feminist, queer, and decolonial approaches to translation, in honor of Qiu Jin,” Wang wrote.