Q&A | ‘The time to hear the stories of the diverse women of east London is long, long overdue’

Like a phoenix from the ashes, the East End Women’s Museum has risen from unusual beginnings
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Eleanor Mills
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Rachel Crossley, director of the East End Women's Museum. Gary Morrisroe Photography
Rachel Crossley, director of the East End Women's Museum. Gary Morrisroe Photography

Due to open in late 2021, the East End Women’s Museum has secured a building in Barking town centre for its first physical manifestation.

The museum was borne in odd circumstances as result of a museum billed to tell the history of East End women, but, when it opened in 2015, actually tastelessly rehashed the Jack the Ripper murders.

As a result of the backlash against this disappointing addition, a campaign was formed to bring together the extraordinary histories of East End women.

Rachel Crossley, the director of the East End Women’s Museum, talks through the story so far and what we can expect when the museum opens next year.

When and how did the project start?

The museum began in really unusual circumstances. In 2015 a museum that promised to tell East End women’s history was revealed instead to be about Jack the Ripper, with women reduced to solely murder victims, and once more being bit-part players in their own stories.

Our co-founders, Sara Huws and Sarah Jackson, were old friends who shared a passion for bringing women’s stories into the spotlight and decided to make something good out of this horrendously missed opportunity.

“I’m trying to think of something I can do and the most positive thing I can think of is to help create that missing museum and help represent those missing stories myself,” said Sara to Sarah in an email, which became the first item in our collection.

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Sarah put out a tweet to ask people if it was a good idea, and the response was overwhelmingly positive: within a week they had more than 800 people sign up to help out, and the New York Times got in touch to ask when the museum was opening.

More than just wanted, it was clear that such a museum was needed. Estimated at just 0.5% of recorded history, there is a paucity of women’s representation, exacerbated when it comes to marginalised groups including ethnically diverse, disabled, gay, trans and working-class women.

So, the East End Women’s Museum is here to rebalance the history books and inspire people, especially women and girls, to share their stories and feel their potential is unlimited.

How has the museum developed?

Over the past five years, we’ve operated as a pop-up, working together with community and cultural partners to conduct research, reach new audiences, and put on exhibitions and events.

This included working with Hackney Museum and Hackney Archives to share stories of 100 years of local women’s activism; interviewing shoppers and stallholders at the historic Watney Market with University College London and King’s College London; and recreating the headquarters of the radical East London Federation of Suffragettes at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

One of the most important parts of our journey has been our amazingly enthusiastic volunteers. We recruited a Steering Group of local women from across east London to connect us to diverse communities and input into key decisions.

We also have around 40 volunteers who research and write women’s stories for our website, meaning we can share a wonderful range: our last three were about an 18th-century textile designer; experiences of black girls in Victorian children’s homes; and an interview with a contemporary gin maker, respectively.

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The challenges have been the typical ones I think ­– time and money. Trying to fulfill our big ambitions while operating as a small team. In 2018 we marked the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote, and 50 years since the Ford Dagenham strikes with three concurrent projects ­­­– which, though incredible, was especially exhausting.

What are the next steps?

We are incredibly excited to be moving to a building-based museum next year. Barking and Dagenham council have been really supportive and offered us a new space and permanent home for our work. It’s in Barking town centre, and part of a new residential development.

It’s currently a building site, but I visited the other week (hard hat chic) and it’s really coming together. All being well, we’ll be opening in late 2021, with a period of testing new learning and engagement programmes before that.

At the same time, we’re doing all the important behind-the-scenes work to get us in tip-top condition to be able to operate a building for the long-term. That includes reviewing our business model and planning how we sustainably build a team to make it all happen.

I find it a real privilege to be involved at this early stage of a museum’s life, helping to figure out these big questions.

How is Barking and Dagenham integral to the stories the museum will tell?

The history of women in Barking and Dagenham is really rich and we hope to do it justice with the stories we tell. For example, feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft lived here as a child, while Annie Clara Huggett, the last surviving suffragette, who died in 1996 aged 104, was a lifelong resident.

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We have the Ford Dagenham strikers of course, who helped bring about the first Equal Pay Act of 1970. And the site itself is next to Barking Abbey ruins, one of the most important nunneries in the country from the 7th to the 16th centuries: a seat of power, centre of learning, and home to some of our earliest known women writers.

That said, we continue to be a museum of the whole of east London, representing stories from across the seven boroughs of the area.

What should people expect from the new museum?

Women’s stories of all kinds – carers, campaigners, artists, entertainers, scientists, sport stars, mothers and rogues. Community and changemaking are at the heart of the museum – and you’ll see that manifest through participatory programming, local and national partnerships, inclusive and intersectional approaches, and inspiring and sometimes unexpected happenings.

As well as the building-based work, we’ll continue to pop-up throughout east London and online – hoping to meet people where they’re at.

We’ll also be actively consulting around and co-designing the new space – so there’s no fixed idea of what it will look like or be just yet. Please keep an eye on our website for opportunities to take part in what we hope will be a really dynamic process.

Do you know what the main themes will be? And any star objects?

We’re really centred around people, their stories, their memories, their ideas and their commitment. What we’re looking to do is bring groups together – locals, volunteers, researchers, artists, anyone with an interest – in citizen research projects that can uncover hidden histories and share them with the public in different and innovative ways.

We have a couple of themes bubbling up but I’m not at liberty to reveal them yet. Suffice to say, women’s activism, excellence and fights for equality will all feature.

A teddy made at the East London Toy Factory, opened by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914 to provide work for women during the first world war

We’re a bit of a different kind of museum, because we only hold a very limited collection of objects currently. Though our one physical object is worth a mention – a beautiful teddy made at the East London Toy Factory, opened by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1914 to provide work for women during the first world war.

What is the Arts Council England-funded project with digital micro-commissions?

Thanks to Arts Council England Emergency Funding, we were delighted to be able to commission six local artists to reflect on the meaning and need for the East End Women’s Museum. We started the project by bringing together the artists and some of our volunteers for a really stimulating conversation about what the museum means to us all.

The exhibition has just gone live and features poetry, illustration, posters and zines. It’s called Let’s See The Invisible, which was a theme that echoed across all the works: the time to hear the stories of the diverse women of east London is long, long overdue. We’re here to help change that.

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