House of horrors

Nicola Sullivan, 13.08.2015
A first-hand account of the Jack the Ripper Museum
My visit this week to the notorious Jack the Ripper Museum was fraught with obstacles.

After a long walk down Cable Street, which cuts through the heart of multicultural East London, I asked a few of the locals whether I was on track to find the museum, which I had tried to call several times but to no avail.

People either recoiled with horror and disapproval or appeared not know about Jack the Ripper or the museum set up in his name.

More than 100 protesters turned up for the last week’s opening of the museum, which was granted planning permission by Tower Hamlets Council in 2014, on the understanding that it would tell the story of the women of East London.  

When I arrived a week later I still had to negotiate a stern security guard patrolling the pavement, eyeing me suspiciously as I hovered at the other side of the street taking pictures. He gruffly informed me that the museum was open, but my entry into 12 Cable Street was treated with caution.

Being a writer for Museums Journal is normally a sure-fire way of getting a free look around newly opened museums and galleries. But I was told that I either paid the entry fee of £12 or come back for the press view when the owners would be able to show me the museum in the way they wanted me to see it.
 
Once inside, I had the whole place to myself, apart from the models, such as those depicting a policeman discovering the mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes, who was Jack the Ripper’s sixth victim. That’s not to mention the voice shouting “murder” or the recording of the song A Violet Plucked from Mother’s Grave, which, it is claimed, was sung by Mary Kelly on the night of her murder.
 
Then there were the delights of Jack the Ripper’s living room complete with carefully placed instruments of torture and anatomical paintings and books. There is also a recreation of a room dubbed the "dross house" to illustrate the impoverished existence of the women who were murdered.

Down in the basement is a mortuary containing photographs of the victims’ bodies, accompanied by a few short lines describing their character and an electric candle to mark the loss.

By this point I was feeling quite sick, not just because of the crude and opportunistic display of violence against women but because of the opportunity that had been squandered.

As I left 12 Cable Street, I noticed a plaque on the wall informing me that Dr Hannah Billig (1901-1987), honoured for her bravery in World War II and famine relief work in India, had lived and worked at this address.

Perhaps, it would have been fitting for a museum dedicated to the women of the East End to explore Billig's story; the lives of the suffragettes; the Bengali women who had to fight racism in the 1970s; or those involved with the Cable Street riots.
 
The ghoulish venue has even triggered discussion about whether it should be called a museum. It is certainly not Accredited by Arts Council England.

In a comment posted on the Museum Association’s website Charlotte Pratley, the director of business development at Culture Syndicates CIC, said that if 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, then surely it contravenes the planning permission granted by the council.

Tower Hamlets Council is investigating whether “unauthorised works” have been carried out at the premises but for the time being a diverse and eclectic community that the museum fails to represent has to live with it on their doorstep.

I didn’t buy a Jack the Ripper mug on my way out.

Comments

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Anonymous
MA Member
26.08.2015, 16:28
Thank you Nicola. This 'museum' was a wasted opportunity. It sounds like a typically exploitative enterprise that offers nothing to the history of the area and its community, in particular women. The plaque at least happily serves as a reminder of the contribution of one woman, and should have overlooked a museum honouring the experiences of many.
Robin Clutterbuck
MA Member
Consultant, White Rook Projects
26.08.2015, 12:45
I share Nicola's doubts about whether or not this attraction should be allowed to call itself a museum (as defined by the profession) but isn't it good to see that these days the word 'museum' is being used to suggest that it's an exciting place to visit! It's not long since everybody was bending over backwards not to use the 'M-word'. I call this progress.