Joe Sullivan is a heritage education professional and has several years’ experience leading Jack the Ripper walking tours. He here follows up his review of the controversial Jack The Ripper museum from September by talking to sector professionals about their personal responses.
In August 2015 a museum opened on Cable Street, East London, centered on the killings of Jack The Ripper. Originally planned as a museum celebrating the history of women in the East End, instead the museum focussed on the Ripper murders of 1888 and “…why and how the women got in that situation in the first place”, in the unfortunately chosen words of the owner Mark Palmer-Edgecombe. In the months following there has been much negative press, and continuing protests from the local community and feminist organisations. Reviews have been generally negative and, in a previous article for the London Museums Group, I looked at the museum and how it related to the concept and definition of a museum. In this follow-up article, I will be focusing on the response from the museum sector, further investigating how the Jack The Ripper Museum relates to the sector as a whole, and talking with museum professionals who have responded in their own productive way to better represent the stories of the East End’s women.
Shortly after the Museum’s opening Nicola Sullivan (no relation), a writer from the Museums Association, visited the Ripper Museum and gave it an overwhelmingly negative review. This view of the museum from the point of the MA is important in analysing the response in the sector. A comment posted on the Museum Association’s website by Charlotte Pratley, the Director of Business Development at Culture Syndicates CIC, states that it “does not match up to the definition of a museum as being an organisation that allows people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment”. Sullivan’s review is pervaded by a sense of disapproval, disgust and negativity – opinions aside it is interesting that the MA were happy to greenlight an article that speaks strongly not just about the content of the museum, but also the ideas and owners behind it. It speaks volumes for the contempt that the MA views the museum in – in no uncertain terms Sullivan notes that the “ghoulish venue has even triggered discussion about whether it should be called a museum. It is certainly not Accredited by Arts Council England”. For the MA to make such a condemnative statement about a new museum, you can be sure that a large volume of the heritage sector will be thinking along the same lines.
One of the key aims of the original proposal – and something which is still claimed by the museum to be an important focus – is to tell the stories of East End women, with stories centering on important topics such as the Suffragettes. Disappointed by the Ripper Museum’s change of plans, Sarah Jackson and Sara Huws, two freelance museum professionals, looked for a positive, sustainable and creative way to protest. They founded a project called the East End Women’s Museum to investigate the possibility of opening a museum, creative space, audio tour, or similar to represent the story of East End women. It is a project born primarily out of reactions of the local people who have felt angered by the opening of the Ripper Museum, and aims to shed a light on other, less well-known, histories of the area. This grassroots approach is endemic in the development of the project. Says Sara Huws: “We started the project as a way to make something positive, sustainable and relevant to people living in the East End. It started quickly with a tweet, and gathered pace, suggesting that there were enough people out there who might be able to help us make it a reality”.
As is fitting for a project that is responding to the issues surrounding the Ripper Museum, there is a strong feminist element to the project. Sarah Jackson: “It’s not about pretending ‘dark’ subjects aren’t interesting, it’s about making sure they are handled with sensitivity, respect and context”. This reaction from members of the sector goes a long way to demonstrate the controversies surrounding the Ripper Museum. There is a lack of context and understanding in the way the museum handles its subject matter. On October 31st 2015 the museum gave visitors the opportunity to have a photo taken with the model of one of the Ripper’s victims, Catherine Eddowes – a move that was subsequently castigated in the press. In response to this, the East End Women’s Museum aim to amplify stories that have been pushed to the margins, offering means for lesser-heard stories to be collected and made accessible.Recording and interpreting the relationship between the past and present is an important role of a museum, as shown by the discussion and protests surrounding the Ripper Museum. In this regard, it is perhaps surprising that there have been no prominent museums dedicated solely to British women’s history. Should the East End Women’s Museum raise the capital and support, it will potentially be the first. This raises the question, has there just been no call for it before?
Says Sara Huws: “There are a great number of archives, collections and exhibitions dedicated to women, and I wouldn’t want to erase the valuable contributions they have made”.This backed up by Sarah Jackson: “I really like the idea of the museum being summoned into being by the call of British women! The reality is that it’s happening now because we’re doing it now… it remains to be seen whether we will get the resources and support we need to make it a reality.There may not be a women’s museum at the moment but there is a thriving women’s history movement which has been working for several decades to bring some balance to history books and heritage institutions”. The project is still very much in the early stages, with no fixed plan on the form the project will eventually take. However, in spite of the controversy surrounding the miss-steps of the Ripper Museum it is interesting to note that such a productive response has come out of the museum sector. The reaction perhaps sums up an important role of museums: interpreting that link between past and present in an open and sensitive manner.
Thanks to Sara Huws and Sarah Jackson from the East End Women’s Museum for their time.
You can find details and get involved in the East End Women’s project here: eastendwomensmuseum.org