Vancouver-based writer, translator and poet Yilin Wang has raised enough money to initiate a legal claim against the British Museum, as she continues to accuse the institution of copyright infringement after the museum removed poetry translations from a major exhibition on nineteenth century China.
As of July 10, Wang has raised £17,380 ($22,400) on crowd-funding platform CrowdJustice to work with lawyers in the UK to file a claim against the British Museum in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC), a specialist court that is part of the Business and Property Courts of the High Court of Justice in London. Wang has also retained the services of Jon Sharples, a solicitor specializing in intellectual property and art, from the British firm Howard Kennedy LLP.
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In an update published on CrowdJustice, Sharples said he would be working with Wang and her barrister to draft a legal claim against the British Museum, but warned that getting a case to trial in the UK meant fees could easily reach “many tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds (and beyond)”.
Sharples also wrote, “Accordingly, it is not giving anything away to say that we sincerely hope that the British Museum comes to recognise the shortcomings in their conduct so far, and move to make amends rather than fight Yilin all the way.”
The legal fundraiser follows Wang’s allegation on June 18 that she did not receive any credit or reimbursement for their translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry when they appeared in the British Museum’s exhibition “China’s Hidden Century,” which opened on May 18. The translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry appeared in the text of the museum’s exhibition, a photo wall, a large-print guide, and the exhibition’s catalogue. Wang said their translation work was originally published in the LA Review of Books in 2021 and Asymptote Journal.
After Wang published her allegations, the British Museum told the Guardian that “it makes every effort to contact copyright owners of images, print and digital media it uses, and has removed the assets in question as an act of good faith until the matter is resolved.”
On June 21, a museum spokesperson told ARTnews in a statement, “Recently we realised that permissions and acknowledgement for a translation by Yilin Wang had been inadvertently omitted from our exhibition China’s hidden century. This was an unintentional human error for which the Museum has apologised to Yilin Wang.”
Wang told ARTnews Monday she decided to raise money to pursue legal action after exchanging several emails with the British Museum about full reinstatement of Qiu Jin’s poetry with credit for her translations; “reasonable payments” for the use of her work in several different formats; as well as an apology explaining what happened and how the museum would avoid it in the future. Wang said the British Museum initially offered a payment of £150 ($194) for the catalogue. That amount was raised to £600 ($775) after Wang asked for a list of all the places the poetry translations had appeared, but the museum also said it would not reinstate Qiu Jin’s poetry and Wang would not be credited because the work would not be in the exhibit.
“They refused twice,” Wang said. “And that was why I started the fundraiser, because it was just not going anywhere at that point.”
ARTnews asked the British Museum for further clarification on Wang’s comments and plans for filing a legal claim, but did not receive a reply by press time.
The British Museum’s large-print guide explains that the “China’s Hidden Century” exhibition “is the result of a four-year research project, undertaken by over 100 scholars from 14 countries. It includes 300 objects from around the world.” 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 told ARTnews she decided to make the entire issue public, first through a lengthy Twitter thread, and now with the pursuit of a legal claim, due to size of the British Museum, its long history of housing stolen artifacts, as well as her concern for something similar happening to other translators, especially from vulnerable groups. “I also worry, as you know, a woman of color, that I would not be taken seriously, and that they would just kind of sweep it under the rug if I didn’t have the support of others. It’s very easy to maybe be ignored or not taken seriously, or kind of just brushed aside.”
“Translators really struggle to get credit for the work,” Wang said, citing the online movement #NameTheTranslator and the ongoing issue where translators are not credited on book covers or in reviews.
“I just want them to apologize sincerely and treat me with respect and make sure that Qiu Jin’s work is handled well, my transactions are handled well, this doesn’t happen again in the future, and they actually learn from it.”