Some thoughts on Jack The Ripper, and the definition of a museum
Joe Sullivan is a heritage education professional working for The Grant Museum of Zoology and Brooklands Museum and has several years’ experience leading Jack the Ripper walking tours. He reviews the recently opened Jack The Ripper museum and questions the core nature of a museum
Note: this is a personal view on the Ripper Museum and discussion surrounding it, and does not reflect the view of the London Museums Group as whole
The dictionary defines a museum as ‘A building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited’. The Museums Association defines them as ‘[a place that] enable[s] people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment’. With these definitions in mind, my recent visit to the Jack The Ripper Museum raised one specific question above the various controversies surrounding the museum’s opening over the past month:
Is it actually a museum?
There has been much reported about the controversy and protests surrounding the museum’s opening. The original documents submitted for planning permission by project chief Mark Palmer-Edgecombe stated that the site would provide the UK’s first women-centric museum, detailing the lives of people in the harsh slums of Whitechapel. This was an exciting idea. Given that I had family in the area at the time, it would shed a light on my own ancestors’ lives, and more broadly resonate with local history including the Match Girls Union, Suffragettes, and Bengali women protesting against racist killings in Brick Lane in the 1970s.
However, once the frontage on Cable Street was revealed, with a silhouetted image of the Ripper and the name ‘Jack The Ripper Museum’, the local community felt cheated and picketed the opening. Protesters claimed the council and local community had been lied to about the nature of the museum, and asked for the council to reconsider the application. On 18th August, a spokesman for Tower Hamlets council stated “Planning permission was granted in October 2014 for the change of use of the premises to space for a museum…ultimately, however, the council has no control in planning terms of the nature of the museum”. On the day that I visited there were no protestors and no other visitors.
The biggest problem with the museum is the severe lack of authentic content. A large amount of the original evidence has been lost, though transcriptions of crime scene reports, original photos and etchings from the murder sites, some pieces of associated ephemera and potential evidence – including the original ‘Dear Boss’ letter which first named the killer as Jack The Ripper – do survive. Front pages from Punch Annual and the Policeman’s Post feature on the walls in some rooms of the museum – however, a lack of labelling and explanations makes it difficult to contextualise the pieces and in some cases to tell if they are originals or reproductions. Small copies of photographs of the victims pre- and post-murder, and copies of the ‘Dear Boss’ and ‘From Hell’ letter, are unlabelled and do not tell the story behind the objects, or that at least one of them is thought to be fake. The real stars of the show are the truncheon, whistle, handcuffs and notebook case that PC Watkins, who discovered the fourth victim, had on him that night…but they are hidden away in a small case in a corner.
The museum consists of recreated rooms: a mortuary, a bedroom, a study, the discovery of the body of Catherine Eddowes, and a police control room set up to investigate the murders. There are inaccuracies and fallacies that rankled with me including anachronisms (such as a phonograph with a turntable), and a general lack of detail. However, more worrying is the creation of Jack The Ripper’s study – the reproduction of a study gives the misleading impression that the Ripper was a man of high means, such as an aristocrat, when there have been over a hundred suspects from all walks of life. It is the job of the museum to look objectively at assimilated evidence, and from that present a rounded view of facts and information, trying to rationalise and convey the thinking of our ancestors for a modern audience – something the Ripper Museum fails to do.
The second broad issue I have with the museum is simply that it doesn’t feel right in 2015. In a year where feminist and transgender issues have been regular mainstream headline news it feels incredibly outdated to focus a museum on, in the words of Palmer-Edgecombe“…why and how the women got in that situation in the first place”. Putting aside the incredibly offensive ‘it was their own fault they got murdered’ victim-blaming undertones of that statement, it simply doesn’t gel with the responsibility towards inclusivity that museums have, and the move in the sector towards being as representative of a modern audience as possible. Or, as stated by Jeanne Sutton, the co-founder of Ireland’s first digital women’s museum: “there’s a lot more to women’s history than dead bodies”. One thing the Jack The Ripper museum can be credited for is the greater degree of attention paid to the victims lives than to theories about the Ripper himself, and there is an attempt to recreate what their lives may have been like, with slight nods towards the path followed by ‘living museums’, but the end result is not convincing.
The museum may be considered to have more in common with a horror attraction than a museum. In the days of the Ripper people loved murder and bloodshed and visited the Ripper’s murder sites to look at the bloodstains; if they were lucky maybe there would be a warm body still lying there to poke a bit! The same could be said today, with the image of Jack The Ripper popularised on mugs and t-shirts, and the east end full of walking tours every night. The history of the Ripper case is already full of muddled stories and blatant lies, perhaps serving this same purpose of commercialising the morbid fascination of the public over the true historical facts of the time and place. This is the inherent problem with the Jack The Ripper Museum – it is caught somewhere between a scare attraction, a straightforward museum, and wanting to be a ‘living museum’ akin to Milestones Museum. It is probably closest to the latter, but I can’t avoid feeling that people with knowledge of the case will go away feeling cheated (especially given the £12 entry fee), and people who know nothing about the murders will be left with inaccurate impressions.
This museum is a glaring missed opportunity for the area – instead of focussing on little-represented parts of the local history and contributing to London culture with a museum dedicated specifically to women, the owners have taken an approach that to me feels more of a cash grab.
I think there needs to be a discussion around the topic of where the Jack The Ripper Museum fits into the scale of what constitutes a museum, and whether an unaccredited museum such as this should have a level of consultation with museum authorities to try to avoid such a vicious public outcry. I believe it is the job of a museum to be objective and not bow to trivialising history.