Can a Jack the Ripper museum replace one of women’s history?

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CW: Femicide, violence against women, mutilation

A new London museum, originally proposed to be a celebration of women in the East End, was met with understandable outrage and branded a ‘sick joke’ as the owners revealed it would be dedicated to Jack the Ripper – an unknown man who killed Whitechapel residents Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly in 1888.

In the planning application approved by Tower Hamlets council this year, locals were promised ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history.’  The man behind the museum, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, promised a ‘world class’ attraction, celebrating the ‘historic, current and future contribution of the women of the East End.’

The application read: ‘The museum will recognise and celebrate the women of the East End – the famous, infamous and anonymous – who have shaped history. Despite the immense contribution of the women of the East End to the historical, social, political and economic development of the United Kingdom, no museum exists to showcase their achievements. The Museum of Women’s History would rectify this.’

Sounds great, right? The East End has a rich history, with a number of famous female residents the museum could have focussed on – members of the Women’s Suffrage movement such as Sylvia Pankhurst, the Match Girls of Bryant & May, Angela Burdett Coutts, Alice Model, and Beatrice Webb, to name just a few.

Yet as Palmer-Edgecumbe’s project developed, he decided that a museum dedicated to a violent and misogynistic murder would be more interesting, claiming that the aim would be to explore the story from the perspective of the victims.

Whilst I’m not against the study of Jack the Ripper or crimes against women per-se, it is very telling and disappointing that a site originally dedicated the women of East London is now named after a man who brutalised and murdered the very women the museum was supposed to celebrate.

As someone who has studied public history, and historical narrative in films and media, I can see why Palmer-Edgecumbe made the decision to change the subject matter. People love scandalous history, and having never known who carried out the murders, there is an air of mystery around the story. New books on the subject are released every year, with ‘Ripperologists’ all having their own theories as to who the killer was. The darker side of Victorian history has always appealed to the public, so commercially, the decision makes sense.

But is it moral to feed this fascination? Do museums not have a social responsibility, as places of education? Whilst legally people are free to open museums as a form of business (and indeed, commercial awareness is important in keeping a museum alive), given that they are designed to educate, should the subject matter not be carefully considered?

Is there also really a need for further exploration? The subject area is one of the most commercialised and extensively researched subjects in East End history. There are already sections of the Museum of London, The City of London Police Museum, and The London Dungeons dedicated to the murders. The first two may be forgiven for making the Ripper a small section in the wider history of London crime. However, the London Dungeons treats the subject as a salacious murder mystery, painting the Ripper as a devious, cunning and exciting character. The skull and crossbones on the front of the museum doesn’t do much to convince me that this new museum won’t paint a similar picture.

There are also countless ‘Jack the Ripper’ walks, the majority of which glamourise him in a very distasteful way. One example tour can be found via a website that plays ‘creepy’ music and includes flashing images of blood and knives on the homepage with the message ‘be afraid… be very afraid.’ Even if we lived in a society free from violence and murder, these messages could be seen as objectionable – but it gets a lot worse once you consider the current (and very dire) statistics around violence against women.

Given the vast number of violent acts and murders that happen against women every day in the UK, I think we should pause and ask ourselves why we find such a sickening tale so fascinating. To put it in context – imagine the outcry if a museum or exhibition was opened about Peter Sutcliffe or Steve Wright, dubbed “modern day Jack the Rippers” for their heinous crimes against women.

Why, as a society, do we find such a morbid fascination with the man, and the women he killed? The passing of time does not make it more palatable. These women were real. They lived, and worked. They were loved and they loved. They laughed, they cried. They had friends, and families. That is, until an unknown man decided to put an end to their lives. What we’re dealing with here is not just murder, but strangling, poisoning, stalking, disembowelment, genital and bodily mutilation. As such, their lives should be treated with respect. It is abhorrent to think that these dead women are being used for commercial gain. Jack the Ripper is glamourised beyond belief, and whilst the website claims that they ‘will not glamourise the killings,’ the building is already named after the man who did it. This just proves that apparently the killing of innocent women will ensure you gain international fascination and fame – an idea that is as dangerous today as it was in the 1880s.

Palmer-Edgecumbe further enraged critics with his response, in which he claimed that the museum would look at ‘why and how the women got in that situation in the first place’ – which sounds dangerously like victim blaming. Yes the women were prostitutes, and yes, they were on the streets at night – even in Victorian London, that does not mean they deserved or were any more likely to be murdered. Women were, and are, today, in as much danger at home – on average 2 women a week are killed by current or former male partner, with a large percentage of these taking place in their homes.

The only silver lining I can find in this situation is that it may highlight the want and need for a women’s museum. Many countries have women’s museums, or museums dedicated to movements, periods of time, or places that revolve around women. There are so many brilliant women, not only in the East End, but in British history that deserve to be celebrated. Women – and especially poorer women – have been constantly marginalised in history, and it would have been great to have a museum dedicated to these ‘lost’ histories.

– Sophie Yates is a history graduate who specialises in women’s history and British working class movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Follow her at: @sophiejyates