It’s all kicking off in east London! In October last year Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe gained planning permission for a new museum dedicated to the history of women in the east end. Last week the awnings were whisked down and – ta-dah!! it’s actually a jack the ripper museum. No suffragettes, no match workers strike, no Dagenham equal pay strike, no inspirational sisters doing it for themselves. Just victims of crime. How disappointing, how insulting, what a whopping lie.
It’s also very weird because Cable Street is best known as the site of violent anti-fascist clashes, and is not really near the sites where any of the women’s bodies were found. Doubly weird because the original artefacts associated with the Ripper case are still in police custody at the ‘black museum’ in Scotland Yard, and can be visited only by a select few with a professional interest in criminology. So what on earth is inside this ‘museum’?? Well, I can’t actually tell you because I’m never going to pay to go in there, and no-one seems to have reviewed it yet. But it’s just going to be some horrible London dungeon type ‘experience’, isn’t it? And that’s precisely why the owner has lied about it. Getting permission for a change of use from residential to commercial property is pretty difficult, but a ‘worthy cause’ like women’s history is going to make it easier. It sounds better than saying ‘hey, I’m going to make money through a cheap and tacky exploitation of murdered women!! Because you, know – mutilated corpses are totally jolly and hilarious, but giving human rights to 55% of the population is zzzzz’
It’s interesting to note that Palmer-Edgecumbe used to be the ‘chief of diversity’ for Google. Why of course he did. I mean, what better way to promote equal opportunity than by paying a middle class, double-barrelled white guy a whole bunch of money that he doesn’t need to give all the little minorities a tiny pat on the head.
There was, of course, a protest. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t actually go. Normally I find protests frustratingly nebulous, but this one seemed very purposeful. There was an ‘anti-gentrification’ protest in Camden recently. I mean, honestly!!! really!! for goodness sake!! If you don’t have an actual specific list of demands, it’s just pointless, isn’t it. A protest demanding strict rent controls – fine. I agree with that. It works perfectly well in other countries, and god knows London will collapse at some point, when no one at all can afford the rent except a few billionaires. But Anti-gentrification? Count me out. Wasting your time protesting vague concepts is no more useful than tilting at windmills. I digress.
Palmer-Edgecumbe claims he was planning a women’s history museum but that halfway through the process he realised that women who achieve amazing things are actually really boring and that it was much more interesting to look at victims crime and ask “why and how the women got in that situation in the first place”. Apart from being a grotesque question to ask – I mean they did not ‘get themselves’ in ‘a situation’ (lying dead on the pavement) someone else put them in that situation – it’s also a big lie. A tiny amount of investigation by The Guardian quickly found that in fact he’d been planning a ripper museum since about 2008. The architect hired claimed he’d also been lied to and that the museum is “salacious, misogynist rubbish.” The East End Review could not contact the museum for comment, noting ‘The telephone number on the museum’s website connects to the office of a stockbrokers in the city.’ The council is investigating. I really hope this gets shut down. Not because I object to these sorts of dumb, awful tourist attractions – if people like the idea they’ll come and gawp – but because of the lies, and because it’s such a horrifying stab in the back for the east end’s women, who deserve better than this.
The museum’s website – which has obviously been hastily updated, and makes no reference to the actual content of the museum, states “There are many tours and ‘attractions’ that exploit these women’s stories, often unregulated and with an uncomfortable focus on the horror story rather than the women’s stories. We felt that the impact on women in this period has never seriously been examined and we intend to put that right.” Clearly they wanted to focus on the victims so much, that they named an entire museum after a completely unidentified man, instead of calling it, you know, the ‘Mary Ann Nichols museum’ or the ‘Annie Chapman museum’ or the ‘Elizabeth Stride museum’. Has a different ring to it, doesn’t it, when you actually focus on victim by giving her a name, and acknowledging that she was a person.
But … could Mr double-barrelled lie-monger have a point?* Are the Ripper killings an interesting jumping-off point to discuss women’s history? As an archivist, I’m often asked to help people tract down their family history. It’s a sad fact, but before the twentieth century there is little recorded evidence of any kind about the lives of ordinary people, especially not women. If your ancestor was an ordinary working class person, or even middle class, it’s usually difficult to find anything in the Victorian period beyond birth, sometimes marriage, and death records. Maybe an employer if they worked for a big company. Possibly census records from which to infer their family relationships and living circumstances. If, however, your ancestor ever passed through the criminal justice system, spent time in an asylum or in a workhouse – you’re in luck! Victorian administrators loved to write copious forms and notes about those in their charge, and you can find out all sorts of things. Certainly history knows far, far more about the ripper’s victims than it does about most women of Victorian east end. ‘Ripperologists’, as they call themselves, have managed to piece together a huge amount of information about these ladies, because copious records were made at the time. And sad though their life-stories were – poverty, alcoholism, homelessness, odd-jobs and odd men and occasional prostitution to keep the wolf from the door – they are representative of thousands of women living around Whitechapel and Spitalfields in the late Victorian period. But because those women died less famous deaths – old age, alcohol, illness, ordinary murders – very little is known about their lives. One anonymous male is all it took to immortalise a small group of ladies and make them famous. How ironic.
* Real answer: Nope. This is still a really lame ‘museum’ and a sick, merit-less joke.