Earlier this week, feminist societies and women’s groups but also, understandably, the general public, were outraged to find that a proposed museum celebrating the historical women of East London and the suffragette movement was opened as an establishment dedicated to the life and crimes of Jack the Ripper. Not only were Londoners disappointed at the failure to celebrate the work of women, who are so rarely represented historically, but this “sick joke” actually replaced those plans with a venue commemorating a man who serial murdered female sex workers.
The site, just a few hundred metres from the Tower of London, was referenced in planning permission paperwork as “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history” and approved by Tower Hamlets council earlier this year. So local residents were clueless about the change of plan until the second the front of the building was unveiled. Details of planning documents created last July actually included pictures of suffragettes and 1970s Asian women campaigning against racial murders around Brick Lane. Contracts stated “The museum will recognise and celebrate the women 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 period to the present day.” The fact that this drastic change was not even mentioned up until the point of unveiling, suggests that even the owner and contractors were aware of firstly the controversy of their turnaround and secondly, the inevitable backlash that would develop. People have taken to Facebook and Twitter to express their anger and it has been reported that the Tower Hamlets mayor will boycott the museum from when it opens next Tuesday.
Film maker and Cable Street resident Julian Cole was quoted by The Guardian summarising the situation; “You propose a museum celebrating the achievements of women and then it turns out to be a museum celebrating London’s most notorious murderer of women. I don’t have any objections to a Jack the Ripper museum, it’s a commercial enterprise like the London Dungeon and Jack the Ripper walking tours, but what I’m miffed about is the fact that we seem to have been completely deceived, in a way that is rather unpleasant.” And his final comment, describing the development as “unpleasant” is particularly poignant, not only is it unpleasant to replace a much needed celebration of female lives with the celebration of violence against female sex workers, but it actually insults and degrades women.
Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, a former diversity chief at Google and the man behind this venture, is blatantly telling women that the brutal murder of female sex workers is far more relevant and interesting than their stories and successes. London is packed with walks, tours, exhibitions, museums and general references to Jack the Ripper, Google alone can tell you his victims have provided half of the city’s tourist attractions. But if you wish to find an attraction celebrating or informing tourists on the female history of London, you may have your work cut out. An entire museum, small as it may have been, dedicated to the lives of East London women and the suffragette movement would have been the first of its kind. Considering how forcefully women have been pushed out of history, their stories left unrecorded and their feats quashed and deemed insignificant, it would have been a significant and necessary step forward into a present day that is beginning to understand the concerns and needs of marginalised genders.
Jemima Broadbridge, a London campaigner, pointed out that the Cable Street area is actually home to many activist groups and if anything “is known for Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens not Jack the Ripper.” Resident Jenni Boswell-Jones added “I don’t think anybody in the area is against enterprise and somebody doing something new and exciting, but Jack the Ripper has nothing to do with Cable Street. Cable Street was the home of the anti-fascist march in 1936, that’s what it’s known for. The Ripper murders took place on Batty Street and the Spitalfields area.” We live in an era when activists are trying more than ever to reduce the encouragement of male violence. The media, including video games and films but also general misogynistic portrayal of women, is working against these groups and the continuous rise of lad culture has only added to a twisted perception of women. Women who are associated with sex work, or even those who are simply more sexually active than others and considered ‘easy’ or slut-shamed, are somehow perceived by patriarchal standards and rape culture as subhuman. People are led to believe that these women are inviting violence and degradation by the distortion of their portrayal within our society. So it follows that the least a London businessman can do is not clutch desperately at straws in the tourism industry and drag an unpleasant and exhausted piece of history from its geographical origins to an entirely irrelevant location for the sake of capital.
To make matters worse, Palmer-Edgecumbe attempted to excuse himself by claiming the museum would operate from the perspective of Jack the Ripper’s victims, explaining “It is absolutely not celebrating the crimes of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place.” He basically decided against plans to celebrate the massively unrepresented history of London women, replaced these plans with a celebration of gender and sex based violence before trying to justify it with the ultimate example of victim blaming. The fascination with crimes like this and the profit they allow creates a celebration of the most unpleasant parts of our history and gives longevity to misogyny and gender based violence. This is made even worse by the fact that victims of crimes like this are considered wholly or even partially to blame when that is never a valid point. The people who are working to modernise our society in such a way that women and sex workers in particular are no longer degraded in this way, are being held back by this focus on capitalism and androcentrism rather than historical representation.
http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jul/29/museum-billed-as-celebration-of-london-women-opens-as-jack-the-ripper-exhibit – For more information on the proceedings of the museum.