Last week, Vancouver-based author Yilin Wang discovered her translations of Chinese revolutionary Qiu Jin’s poems on view without her permission in a British Museum exhibition titled China’s Hidden Century and printed in the show’s accompanying catalogue. In a series of tweets, Wang called out the unauthorized use as “copyright infringement” and demanded that the museum compensate her and offer an apology. Online, she was met with an outpouring of support, and the museum removed her work.
But Wang is alleging that the museum mishandled the fallout of the incident by eliminating her work without her consent — removing both Wang’s English translations and Qiu Jin’s original Chinese poems from the exhibition in an act that she says “erased both of us.” In an interview with Hyperallergic, the translator described the London institution’s apology and ensuing communications as “hollow” and “condescending.”
“I strongly condemn the British Museum for their lack of good faith and lack of accountability,” Wang said. “I do not and cannot accept their apology.”
Wang, who is now in contact with a lawyer, also lamented the museum’s offers for compensation. According to Wang, the museum initially offered her £150 (~$191) for her translations published in the 30,000-copy print catalogue, and later an additional £450 (~$573) for her work’s “retrospective” use in the exhibition. In emails sent by the British Museum to Wang, which were reviewed by Hyperallergic, the institution told the translator that because the museum is an “academic organization and a charity,” most exhibition contributors “graciously agree not to charge us for the use of their work.” Additionally, although the museum said at first that it would include Wang’s name alongside other translators in an acknowledgment panel inside the exhibition, the institution revoked the offer after it removed Wang’s work. (The museum says Wang is “fully acknowledged” in the catalogue; the translator claims there is one instance in which she is not.)
Wang observed that the translations were in the show for five weeks before they were removed, and said she would have liked for the institution to properly compensate her rather than simply take them down. She added that the museum gave her 24 hours to respond to their email asking how she’d like to proceed, leaving her little time to answer given the eight-hour time difference between the United Kingdom and Canada, before removing the poems. She claims that despite two requests, they have refused to reinstate them.
“Since I had no say in the matter while my work was being displayed, it feels like an insult added to injury to receive their first email — that misrepresented the situation in a disingenuous way — and then have all my agency and visibility denied once again when they hastily eliminated all of Qiu Jin’s poetry from the exhibition without any opportunity for discussion,” Wang said.
Five days after Wang first posted on Twitter, the British Museum issued a June 21 statement announcing it had apologized to Wang, describing the incident as an “unintentional human error.”
“The British Museum takes copyright permissions seriously. Across the range of our work, we make every effort to contact the owners of rights in text, images, print and digital media. This was a particularly complicated project and we recognise we made an inadvertent mistake and fell short of our usual standards,” the museum’s statement read.
“China’s Hidden Century has been a complex exhibition to stage and we have worked with over 400 people from 20 countries to produce its content and display, including 30 lenders and numerous other contributors,” the institution continued.
Wang finds this justification unconvincing. “How can they unintentionally take a poem translation that’s over 20 lines long?” she questioned, adding that although the museum said it was “looking into what has happened,” she has yet to receive an explanation.
Hyperallergic has contacted the British Museum for comment on each of Wang’s claims, and the museum replied it has nothing to add to its June 21 statement. China’s Hidden Century was funded in part by the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, which declined to comment for this story. The Huo Family Foundation and Citi, two sponsors of the exhibition, have not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s inquiries.
Wang told Hyperallergic that she feels the British Museum’s repeated characterization of the incident as an error constitutes “passive language” rather than an adequate admission of responsibility on the museum’s part.
“They are forcing me to escalate this, and I will fight you to the bitter end,” Wang wrote in a tweet directed toward the British Museum yesterday. “May Qiu Jin’s ghost haunt you all forever.”