​​From Inspirational Women to Victimised Women

When Tower Hamlets Council, London, authorised plans in October 2014 to convert a shop into a private local history museum, it probably didn't envisage the controversy it would ultimately cause. Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, (ironically) the former head of diversity and inclusion for Google, submitted plans to the Council to open a museum that would, "recognise and celebrate the wom​​en of the East End who have shaped history, telling the story of how they have been instrumental in changing society. It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian to the present day." [1] Referred to as the 'Museum of Women's History', approved plans for the museum conversion were illustrated with images of local female campaigners and achievers over time. [2]

The above image refers to the Match Girls' Strike in 1888 about working conditions and health issues at the Bryant and May match factory, which is situated in the Tower Ha​​​mlets Borough. This would have been an ideal local campaign to represent at the East End women's history museum. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain, would have been appropriate to represent in the  women's history museum as she was born in Whitechapel, just North of where the museum is situated on Cable Street.

As would Hannah Billig, a doctor, who had a clinic on Cable Street, awarded the George Medal for bravery due to her efforts to help injured Londoners during WWII bomb attacks, despite her own injuries, and later a recipient of an MBE for her work with injured soldiers in India.) But as the museum's opening date grew closer and its façade was unveiled in July 2015, it was no longer a museum dedicated to celebrating the achievements of E​ast End women but one dedicated to the Victorian killer of East End women, Jack the Ripper. [3] 

The press and social media went wild. Some locals were upset about the museum's macabre focus and content. Some critics were uneasy about the discrepancy between the initial plans and materialised museum. [4] The architects who designed it felt deceived as they were under the illusion that it was a women's history museum. [5] How did a museum about inspirational local women through time become something exploiting, commercialising and sensationalising the horrific murder of local Victorian women?  How does the focus of a museum, its core message and manifesto, change so dramatically?  

In an interview with the Evening Standard, museum founder Palmer-Edgecumbe explained why:  

"We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper. . . It is absolutely not celebrating the crime of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place." [6] 

A message by Palmer-Edgecumbe on the Museum website (since removed) said that "The Jack the Ripper Museum in no way glorifies or glamorises Jack the Ripper, quite the opposite, it presents the women of the East End's story for the first time. Its aim is to educate people about 'the social history of the East End of London in the 1880s", referencing the poverty, disease and crime of the Victorian East End and the immigrant groups who moved there. [7] In a recent interview, a museum spokesperson said that while other attractions "exploit[ed] these women's stories, often unregulated and with an uncomfortable focus on the horror story rather than women's stories', the Jack the Ripper Museum will examine and focus on 'the impact on women in this period." [8] 

However, despite this suggestion that the museum uses the Ripper murders as a lens to explore wider Victorian social and gender issues, the museum floor plans suggest otherwise. The museum's rooms are reconstructions of key locations to the Ripper murders and investigations, such as a mortuary, murder scene and police station, with Ripper-related artefacts displayed. The room descriptions refer entirely to the Ripper murders, omitting any wider social history or Victorian social issues. [9] 

When the museum was due open to the public (on 7 August), crowds of protestors gathered outside, preventing it from opening. Some were dressed in suffragette colours, some holding signs condemning the glorification of violence against women and some demanding the women's history museum they were promised. [10] A small group of individuals later smashed its windows. [11] The museum has been opened but with a security presence. [12] While Tower Hamlets Council claim that they cannot alter the museum's focus and content, they are investigating whether Council were "misled" and are looking into claims that the museum is not operating within the agreed conditions (regarding opening times and signage) and has carried out 'unauthorised works.' [13] 

I asked a fellow PhD student, Joanna Kemplay Adhikari, who is researching domestic violence, for her opinion about the Museum. She said: 

"Violence towards women and girls is still prevalent in our society and is an issue being dealt with continuously; as an example, in terms of domestic abuse, right now there are at least 100,000 victims at high risk of murder or serious injury, with 94% of them being women (Safelives, 2015). A common feature of domestic abuse is for the victim and other family members to minimise and normalise what is happening, this allows the abuse to continue unreported; societal values of normalising violence against women also play a large role in this. It is my opinion that the 'Jack the Ripper' museum serves only to glamourise the brutal crimes that were committed against the five victims. This threatens to perpetuate society's acceptance of violence against women; hindering the progress being made by women's groups, and contributing to the high rates of under-reporting."

My Doctoral Research: Representations of Victorian Women in Museums

This controversy and heated debate shows no signs of slowing down and is one that I will continue to follow as it relates to my doctoral research. I am investigating how contemporary museums represent Victorian women. Women have traditionally been 'hidden from history' and this has been reflected in museums. By the mid to late 1980s, some museums started included women's history. But it was generally shoehorned into displays, tokenistically and as an afterthought. Throughout the 1990s, some museum researchers and curators became concerned about the quality of these representations of women's history. Much of the criticism highlighted how women were stereotyped (often portrayed in a domestic environment in a care-giver role), that representations of women's history were positioned in the background or on the edges of exhibitions (whereas men's history was at the forefront), and interpretive text often objectified, sexualised and belittled women. Many curators began to consider how women's history in their museums can be re-presented, re-interpreted and re-imagined. This emerging problematisation of women's history in museums has been further developed since the 2010s, with some researchers actively exposing inequalities of gender in museums, challenging traditional gendered histories and remedying gender biased displays (albeit temporarily).  

The level of protest against the Jack the Ripper Museum by the general public, as well as particular campaigners and groups, shows how museum content and gender issues in a museum setting are now becoming a public concern, rather than just a curatorial or academic concern. This can only be a positive thing for the museum and heritage industry as it has opened up a debate about what is 'displayable' history, and may encourage museums to reconsider what history (and in particular what women's history) they represent and how.  

I am disappointed that a museum celebrating the achievements of East End women has not materialised. Some newspapers have suggested that the museum was always destined to be about Jack the Ripper and the women's history museum was just a front. [14] In which case, I'm disgusted that women's history was used as a smoke-screen and disguise for something which actually degrades women's history. It's a shame that the violent, fatal attacks on several vulnerable Victorian women was deemed more 'interesting' (as Palmer-Edgecumbe phased it), profitable (the entry fee and  'merchandise' in the gift shop deserves its own blog) and more worthy of preservation, display and interpretation than women's history more generally and the individual feats of local women over the last few centuries. [15] A women's history museum celebrating and showcasing the strength and achievements of East End women would have been a much needed and welcomed community asset, archive and educational tool. There is a campaign for such a museum to be set up which is receiving strong support so watch this space!   

I am angry that while other museums nation-wide (with more moral and ethical objectives and content) are struggling to stay afloat and keep open in this economic climate, this museum, sensationalising violence against women, has a healthy coffer to support it financially. Prior to the Jack the Ripper Museum's planned opening, Palmer-Edgecumbe billed it as a 'world class visitor attraction.' [16] The truth is that both sex and death sells. World-wide there are attractions dedicated to both, with sex and erotica museums in Paris, Shanghai and Mumbai, and torture museums in Amsterdam, Prague and Germany. Dark tourism/heritage, of locations associated with death (such as battlefields, concentration camps, cemeteries and murder houses), is a thriving industry. Sex and death combined together with a Victorian twist and a splash of notoriety makes a popular visitor attraction. Whether it will be world-class, popular (albeit for the wrong reasons) or just notorious is yet to be established.  

The Jack the Ripper Museum would be an interesting museum to visit and analyse for my research but frankly I don't want to add to the museum's profits and visitor figures. I fear that the museum focuses on the prostitution element of London's Victorian East End, exploiting the working class, and objectifying or sexualising women (more generally) as well as the victims of the Ripper, more specifically. I hope (but doubt) that the museum has represented these women with respect, dignity and grace, and that they are not just represented as prostitutes and murder victims. They were daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, grandmothers and friends to many. They had dreams and aspirations that went beyond the backstreets of the East End. I hope that the women's wider story is explored; that all of the chapters of their lives are told rather than just their final one.    

Dr Lauren Padgett has a BA degree in History and English and a MA in Museum Studies. Lauren worked in local museums for several years. Her PhD research investigated representations of Victorian women in contemporary museums.

Image credits: 

Image one from Illustrated Police News, 'Match Girls Strike at Bow', 21 July 1888, No. 1275, front page, 19th Century British Newspapers, © 2014 Gale (used in accordance with copyright permissions)  

Image two: Print of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, by Walery, published by Sampson Low & Co, February 1889, © National Portrait Gallery, London, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw82300/Elizabeth-Garrett-Anderson?LinkID=mp65487&search=sas&sText=elizabeth+garrett+anderson&role=sit&rNo=3 (used in accordance with copyright permissions) 

Image three: Blue plaque for Hannah Billig, taken by Brian Cooper on 26 July 2013, made available on https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hannah_Billig_blue_plaque.jpg?uselang=en-gb (used in accordance with copyright permissions)  

[1] Nadia Khomami, 'Museum billed as celebration of London women opens as Jack the Ripper exhibit', online at http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jul/29/museum-billed-as-celebration-of-london-women-opens-as-jack-the-ripper-exhibit (The Guardian Online, created 29 July 2015)  

[2] ibid.  

[3] ibid. 

[4] ibid. 

[5] ibid. 

[6] Tom Brooks-Pollock and Jonathan Prynn, 'Cable Street museum which promised to celebrate East End women now devoted to Jack the Ripper', online at: http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/exhibitions/museum-which-promised-to-celebrate-east-end-women-now-devoted-to-jack-the-ripper-10423690.html (Evening Standard Online, created 29 July 2015) 

[7] Jack the Ripper Museum, 'Message from the Founder', online at: http://www.jacktherippermuseum.com (links to museum website main page as founder page since removed) 

[8] Rachel Bishop, 'Architect behind Jack the Ripper museum 'duped'', online at: http://www.wharf.co.uk/news/local-news/architect-behind-jack-ripper-museum-9813748 (The Wharf Online, created 7 August 2015) 

[9] Jack the Ripper Museum, 'About the Museum', online at: https://www.jacktherippermuseum.com/

[10] Khomami 

[11] Rachael Pells, 'Jack the museum fails to open after designer labels it 'misogynist rubbish'', online at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/aug/05/jack-the-ripper-museum-salacious-misogynist-rubbish-london-east-end (The Independent Online, created 7 August 2015) 

[12] Nicola Sullivan, 'Jack the Ripper Museum maintains security after protests', online at: http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/12082015-jack-the-ripper-museum-maintains-security-after-protests (Museums Association, created 12 august 2015) 

[13] ibid. 

[14] Pells.  

[15] Brooks-Pollock and Prynn  

[16] Jack the Ripper Museum, 'Message from the Founder'.​

< PreviousNext >