Jack the Ripper Museum: A Cultural Controversy

East End London map with locations marked.Credit: Jack-the-ripper-walk.co.uk

I’ve seen couples posing for romantic photos at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and children use it as a playground, leaving sweet wrappers behind; I’ve seen bored teenagers struggling to feign interest at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In those cases it was the visitors, not the attractions, lacking emotional intelligence and leaving me speechless.

London’s Jack the Ripper Museum, in the heart of Whitechapel, has gone one step further in terms of emotional intelligence failures, by actively encouraging tourists to mock murder victims. The appalling serial killings of Victorian prostitutes are offered as the perfect subject for a selfie or two this Halloween weekend. A recent press release, publicising the museum as a Halloween attraction, suggests visitors take “a selfie with the serial killer” (or, at least, a mysterious bloke in a top hat). Fancy “a picture with Jack in Mitre Square together with the body of Catherine Eddowes”? Go ahead. It’s not like Eddowes can complain, right?

Ripper Museum in Whitechapel dedicated to scandalous murders. Builder standing outside with ladder
An early photo of the museum taking shape in Cable Street. Credit: Lonniebeee via Instagram (https://instagram.com/p/5Xk9afqTet).

Brand Perceptions

Though the press release is still on the internet, the accompanying press photos are no longer available. To get a better idea of what’s involved on a normal visit, you can see historian Fern Riddell’s verdict of the museum, and Nicola Sullivan’s review for Museums Journal, which points you towards some dubious gift shop offerings – the standard Jack the Ripper mug has already sold out, but (fortunately?!) the bloodied latte glass is still available, or try the £45 top hat designed to make you resemble Jack (just for LOLs).

Merchandise bears a logo of a silhouetted Ripper figure next to a pool of blood: “reducing the women of the East End to a red smudge,” as Liz McKenzie, a research fellow writing for the Times Higher Education supplement, put it. What makes the whole concept even weirder is that this wasn’t meant to be a Ripper attraction or a dark tourism site at all – it was proposed as a Museum of Women’s History.

Ripper murder victim Annie Chapman seen in detailed drawing with doctor and related figures in her story
An illustration at the time, telling the story of the second canonical murder victim, Annie Chapman.

Not As Described

The severe change of direction, from women’s museum to Ripper museum, happened after planning permission had been granted by Tower Hamlets Council. Such an undeniable shift in genre means the existing attraction must barely resemble the plans that were submitted, as Love Wapping points out. The aims set out in the 2014 application are clear:

The museum… will analyse the social, political and domestic experience of women from the time of the boom in growth in the East End in the Victorian period through the waves of immigration to the present day.

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.

The architect, Andrew Waugh, said he feels “duped” after being led to believe he was working on a project to celebrate East End women. He called the Ripper Museum “salacious, misogynist rubbish”. Evidently it doesn’t fit the proposal from the planning application, unless being murdered is considered an achievement.

Letter written to sensationalise Victorian murders in Whitechapel, London. Handwritten note on old paper.
One of the many letters purporting to be from the man himself (please note: this is not an exhibit from the museum). Always courting attention, we can only assume he would have loved the thought of his own museum. Credit: Brittanica.com.

Pulling in the Punters

The official website covers the main highlights of the six floor collection, including a mocked up mortuary and a mixture of genuine Ripperologist relics and stylised props. In the Ripper’s Sitting Room, an imagined base for the murderer, ‘you will find medical instruments, poison, drug bottles and a skull belonging to the killer.’ It costs £12 for adults to visit, but there are some glowing reviews to help you make up your mind (‘Would have liked to have seen a bit of blood in the bedroom and some in the mortuary but still very enjoyable.’ – Warren, GB). I should point out that some reviewers did say it was very respectful and tasteful, but I don’t know what their barometer of taste is.

Museum director Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, formerly Google’s head of diversity, has faced criticism for the attraction and how much it differs from the original plans he submitted back in 2014; also, culture site Hyperallergic revealed Palmer-Edgecumbe had registered plans for a Ripper Museum in Kent in 2012, and the proposed museum’s office wasn’t dissolved until 2014. Meanwhile, further press release problems occurred when PR representative Joshua Walker defended the Ripper on Twitter – tweets that have now been removed.

Jack the Ripper typical image of man with horse and cart discovering victim in back street
By studying images like these, are we still interested in the crime or using it as entertainment? Credit: Radiotimes.com.

Ethics in Tourism

I’ve already had a brush with consumer-centred Ripperology – in 2013 I took a Ripper Tour with Celebrity Planet, which wasn’t as content-heavy as I’d hoped (perhaps the tour company’s name should’ve set alarm bells ringing). Joining a tour group could be exploitative in itself, by allowing someone to cash in on the Ripper murders and letting yourself gawp, but this wasn’t my intention. Having read quite a few books and articles about the crimes, I wanted to understand the geography of the area and also see how much it’s changed since the murders. Like the rest of the group, I didn’t take selfies or joke around, but it seems this new museum is actively encouraging people to take the exhibits lightly, which is unnerving.

Writing about this whole controversy has thrown up a lot of questions. Should journalists and bloggers visit the museum, or would that just be adding fuel to the fire and money in the pot? Is it okay to make judgements without having visited? What kind of person takes a photo with a waxwork model of a murdered prostitute, and which hashtags would be appropriate when they posted it online? There’s no right answer. This attraction – at least what I’ve read of it – seems to put the victims’ rights last, and entertainment before dignity.

Whitechapel Victorian women seen in profile pen drawing
An artist’s impression of the canonical five Ripper victims – Mary Ann Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catharine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Credit: Crimemagazine.com.

Forgotten Women

The more I learn about history, the more I come across examples of women being undermined, exploited or forgotten. These include the Guerrilla Girls movement calling out the lack of women artists in top galleries, the tragedy and horror of the Ravensbrück concentration camp (which many people haven’t even heard of), and the airbrushing of Elizabeth O’Farrell from many reports and one official photo of the 1916 Easter Rising. With the case of the Ripper victims, they haven’t been lost to history, but they have almost become fictional characters and figures of ghoulish fun, instead of somebody’s daughter or somebody’s friend. Yes, it’s been well over 100 years since the killings, but that doesn’t make them any less distressing, brutal or real.

To learn about the Ripper the right way, see the Museum of London’s downloadable pocket guide – it covers the basics and explains East End living conditions at the time, but doesn’t cost £12 or involve the promise of a blood-spattered souvenir at the end.