You Don’t Know Jack: The Controversies and Content of London’s Jack the Ripper Museum
Disclaimer: The following report on The Jack the Ripper Museum and the accompanying review were prepared some weeks ago. The delay in publication has been the result of legal issues as Real Crime has been advised not to print some of the information given by Jemima Broadbridge during the formal interview with her on the grounds of potential defamation.
Did you ever get dragged to museums when you were a kid? You’d traipse around glaze-eyed life models of lofty founding fathers and peer into glass cases smeared with fingerprints, stale breath and boredom. In contrast, when Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe opened London’s Jack the Ripper Museum in August 2015, the hue and cry resounded down its Cable Street base, across the Thames and beyond.
Before discussing the actual content of the museum itself, it’s necessary to examine why the venture has been so controversial. London is, after all, no stranger to tourist attractions or educational venues (depending on your outlook) such as The London Dungeon, The Clink Museum and The London Bridge Experience that render and replicate the city’s criminal past with macabre models and historical artefacts.
A key distinction between the Ripper Museum and these other outlets is that its subject matter has led the project to become the focus of a very personality-based and, therefore, political campaign.
In way of an overview, Jack the Ripper is a notorious figure the world over as the killer and mutilator of East London’s women in 1888. He was never caught. The known traces he left consist largely of the horribly brutalised bodies of the sex workers he murdered but, other than that, much is down to conjecture, including his very identity.
This is a key concern for those who have protested against the museum, including historian Fern Riddell, who has stated that museum’s management have misrepresented historical fact to create the attraction, including signs that lack context or full information. There are also concerns from campaigners such as Jemima Broadbridge that museum owner Palmer-Edgecumbe misled city planners stating that the museum was intended as a site to promote the history of the East End women rather than some of their numbers’ terrible deaths, and finally that the owner is part of a trend of gentrification in the area, driving London inhabitants from their homes.
There are also other concerns such as the integrity of the museum’s relationship with its designer and the recent development of its advisory board that are beyond the scope of an article of this size.
Report: The anti-gentrification protest
Following an anti-gentrification protest held at an unrelated venue, a rally was organised to demonstrate against the museum. Several key advocates, including Martin Wright, of the two events readily spoke to the press and distributed information online beforehand to promote their cause, and information about how to attend was freely available without personal invitation on social media sites such as Facebook.
The day of the rally came. The event was due to start at 2pm but when Real Crime arrived on the scene at 1:50, the street appeared bare barring two police officers, a handful of journalists (half of whom were actually journalism students from City University) and a further handful of volunteers whose purpose it was to oversee that the police’s actions remained within the boundaries of the law.
The rally itself had been cancelled the day before owing to, according to the organisers’ Facebook and media messages, the concern that it would be a press and police ‘free for all’ rather than a way for them to convey their message to the museum owners and other local stakeholders.
A few protesters did attend the event and the visible police presence and journalists at the scene increased. Martin Wright spoke briefly with a loudhailer, stating that the rally had been cancelled as it would be seen as a “freak show”. Dressed in a T-shirt referencing recent allegations concerning politician David Cameron’s interactions with a pig and bearing the slogan “pig fucker”, he detailed the cause’s complaints against the museum as being on the grounds of appropriate public representations, focusing specifically on its emphasis of gory history rather than the local area’s triumphs.
Opinion: The campaign
Real Crime spoke to Jemima Broadbridge, a veteran local campaigner speaking out against the museum for the same commonly cited reasons.
Broadbridge reiterated that she has never been inside the museum herself. She has chosen not to, arguing that she does not need to see the evidence for herself as she would prefer to rely on the information provided by historian, Fern Riddell, as shown below in a Twitter exchange:
While Riddell is expertly placed to confirm whether the information presented is factually correct or not, her specialism is not strictly speaking as an arbitrator of taste – London Dungeon also deals with gory replicas and relics, but few would dispute its cultural relevance. What is more, her Tweets conflate her objective comments on the accuracy of the information presented with her subjective opinion of the way the display may be experienced by the visitor as being “divorced” from “reality”:
While it is common for cultural studies analysis to be written from the author’s own experience, in a case where fact and fiction are such a key issue, this at least should be acknowledged.
Moreover, by relying on someone else’s information, one automatically chooses to rely on one individual’s selectively presented evidence and perspective, rather than seeing and experiencing for themselves what is actually there (if only to confirm their views). That Riddell is a specialist in the Suffragette movement suggests her perspective may, naturally, be (justifiably) politicised from the outset in the same way that this author’s perspective is influenced by an academic specialism in cultural studies and taboo. This is not a bad thing, but it does require acknowledgement in this type of context.
However, the truly intriguing aspect of Real Crime’s interview with Broadbridge was not her perspectives on the rights and wrongs of the museum, which she did discuss, but the additional information she mentioned during the interview – information which could be perceived as potentially defamatory, and therefore unable to be printed here in good faith.
After the interview, she took to Twitter accusing Real Crime’s interviewer of giving misleading information about their affiliation with Real Crime and stating that they were in the pay of the museum because they were not outright condemning the venture.
Broadbridge’s assertion, as seen above, is utterly untrue. Broadbridge stated when asked that she has 15 years’ experience as a press officer, yet she made statements that directly contradicted the information she had been given in the interview. She also claimed that this article misrepresented the facts of the case despite having been told that the piece had not, at that point, actually been written.
Why does this matter? Because Broadbridge is one of the key figures in the fight against the venue, spent part of the interview citing the occasions where she has been interviewed as an expert on the case and yet her provable actions demonstrate her to be someone who on this occasion did not verify the information placed on Twitter. It is impossible for the public to assess the real controversies surrounding the content of the museum and its legal right (or lack of it) to exist when information given by such campaigners is not accurate.
It is frankly impossible to judge a case using evidence from a witness who provably presents misleading, bias or inaccurate evidence as fact without acknowledging it as such.
Evidence is the basis for real crime narratives. Evidence is the hard fact that we use to try and make sense of the human condition, and it is the best way to judge the museum. This naturally entails a look inside the place.
Review: Inside the museum
Examining evidence involves looking. It involves becoming involved and assessing. We are not trying to solve the crime in the space of a visitor attraction – the world’s best minds haven’t managed and Palmer-Edgecumbe himself has commented that the museum doesn’t attempt to pick a favoured theory of the murderer as opposed to dramatically suggest some possibilities.
What the museum does do is give a brief (yes, only brief) written overview of the London in which the murders took place, but more importantly it is argued that its displays force us to look at our own voyeurism, consider what it means about human nature and consider what use that nature is to us.
To this visitor, it is to feel the frailty of human life and acknowledge the ‘rubber necking’ that led to the press attention that arguably furthered Jack’s fame at the time. It could, perhaps, also be used to encourage visitors to challenge the social factors that led (and continue to lead) to some murders.
This is evident from when you walk into the re-imagined bedroom of one of the victims, seeing the meagre bed, the filthy windows and threadbare chair then notice the nods to personality suggested by the mirror, hairbrush and a reproduction of the folk melody that the victim was singing the day before she died and that is played over the speakers. The room is based on similar properties at the time, but is in itself conjecture by virtue of some of its decoration. It does, however, feel effective. It feels like walking into a place of the recently deceased, and is unnervingly visceral and terribly sad for it.
Similar can be said of the morgue in the basement. There is a small (and easily missed) sign providing some explanation, but the effect of walking into the room below ground with its strange smell gives some idea of the finality of death. It is intriguing that further research states that several of the objects in the room including the mortician’s table, the stained glass window and the drawers in which bodies are supposedly, are authentic.
Museums are not books; they are places you visit to feel a connection to, and understand, history by being in physical proximity to the things that impacted on the proceedings at the time. They place the mind and memory in direct contact with history when it is ready to reflect and are intended to aid that process.
They are, by their very nature, places of experience and in that way the Jack the Ripper Museum is no different to the highly regarded Jorvik Viking Centre (and it should be noted there is controversy about how Vikings truly lived). These places take you out of your own time so that you may consider another and we learn experiences that change us. The urge toward voyeurism and ‘selfie’ culture may, also, be eroded here simply because the museum recreates the nearest the tourist may sense to desperation.
Indeed, the museum’s sometimes arguably extreme tonal shifts, from larger than life-sized recreations of the original newspaper drawings, to the ability to buy drinking glasses spattered in fake blood in the gift shop, to the sadness of that song in the bedroom, shifts the viewer through stages of emotional unease that forces us to think of our role as witnesses and voyeurs of Jack’s crimes and to the markers of social deprivation that are still present today.
Can you know Jack?
This is not to say that the place couldn’t be more effective or shouldn’t change. A spokesperson from the Museums Association (who asked to remain anonymous) stated that the museum is not currently a member of the Association and would not currently achieve accreditation owing to its deviation from Best Practice guidelines, but then, as they stated, many venues don’t.
One potential improvement could be the addition of detailed descriptions of artefacts (and clarifications of what is case evidence-based and what is invention), such as Jack’s sitting room, which is based on the presumption that the unknown criminal was middle to upper class, lived accordingly and surrounded himself with framed art, ornaments and soft furnishings.
Considering the presentation of this room, Palmer-Edgecumbe stated:
“[What] I wanted to do with the Jack the Ripper Museum was to make it different and tell the completely different and new perspective because otherwise somebody could just go on a walk or to the London Dungeon.”
He aimed, he said, “to be totally authentic”. Asked what he meant by ‘authentic’, he replied:
“This room is obviously a fantasy. This is Jack the Ripper’s sitting room. It is our knowledge of how a middle-class sitting room would have been decorated in Victorian times and we have based it on that…The original Victorian doctor’s bag that was made by Asprey in Bond Street for obviously a very wealthy man, the same with the medical instruments and all the prints, the paintings and so on.
Everything is from that period. We kind of used our understanding of who Jack the Ripper might have been and there are many theories that he was a doctor or an artist and so we have references to that with these anatomical paintings and artist materials. So yeah, this room is a fantasy but the other rooms like the police station is a recreation of how we believe that the division of the Whitechapel police station was around the corner.
Mary Jane Kelly’s bedroom is once again created from pictures of the time. We sourced original wallpaper and an original bed and chairs and, you know, the boots and the shoes are original from the time, as [is] the bonnet. There’s a lot that you have to fill in the gaps with Jack the Ripper because it’s a story that has a lot of mythology around it, but what we tried is create something that is authentic and authentic to the period.
We have original artefacts – original copies of police news, original police uniforms… the truncheon whistle and notebook of Inspector Watkins which are completely unique probably outside the Scotland Yard Museum which nobody is allowed to visit. Everything else is original to that period.”
His referral to the idea of “filling in the gaps” in Ripper history, coupled with the idea that some of the items on display are “authentic” does draw attention to the distinction between factual evidence from the case and the authenticity of a product from the time that viewers pay to see.
They are not the same and it is arguably a legal matter rather than one based on his understanding of the word’s definition. To resolve this, further explanation of many of the artefacts would be of benefit in terms of differentiating the fact from the guesswork, perhaps enabling visitors to think of the ethical implications of the distinctions between truth and of their own imaginations. How to present this without impinging on the evocative nature of the space is a conundrum that could be resolved through debate. The place’s efficacy – the level of horror arising from its displays that its critics condemn – is a result of its catering to the senses rather than purely to the mind.
Palmer-Edgecumbe has assured Real Crime (on being passed Broadbridge’s concerns) that incorrectly labelled artefacts would be replaced. He stated:
“There are two things in the museum that have been questioned. I didn’t put all that together because I’m not an expert. One of the photographs of the woman is not of her and we have the wrong burial place for one of the women…
[As] far as I was concerned everything was right we have already been in touch with the historian we used to advise us to double check those two facts. If you find anything that you think is inaccurate tell me immediately and we will investigate it… I absolutely hold my hand up the fact that things might be incorrect and we will get it changed.”
It would be beneficial to know when this has been completed, though the Museums Association spokesperson that Real Crime spoke to stated that correct labelling of display items is the responsibility of the curator and that it is not unusual for descriptions to be modified as new information comes to light.
Furthermore, it could also be argued that a name alteration for the venue may be appropriate in light of its ‘imagined’ elements, although ‘Museum’ is a common moniker for attractions of its kind.
Finally, some of the venture’s integrity (arguably compromised when its remit was altered during the planning stage) might be at least partially regained if the venue sticks by what Palmer-Edgecumbe explained were its plans to work in partnership with local stakeholders to raise awareness of the causes it originally stated its intention to promote, such as the importance of women’s history.
Asserting that the museum should be closed is arguably counterproductive simply because, as Broadbridge acknowledged, they have not broken any planning laws. As a result, it should not be used as a scapegoat for local organisers’ fury at the gentrification of London or indeed concerns about ongoing misogyny the world over.
Not everyone will be satisfied because, culturally, our different communities have different views on how to approach death. For many, the subject alone is a still massive social taboo despite it being the one thing that all of us will, one day, experience. By considering these issues the museum may at least be able to develop a dialogue with those who are willing to work together for the benefit of all. At the very least, those who do seek to work together should not, surely, automatically be chastised as having been “bought off” by the museum, as Broadbridge suggested in our interview.
The Jack the Ripper Museum caters for the sensibilities of the sensation-seeking society we have become. Denying that that culture exists, distasteful though it may seem to some, is futile because that will not make it go away. In this vein, the museum is visceral, occasionally bloody and arguably in bad taste, but it is not forgettable.
Jack happened, sexual assaults and murder continue daily and we cannot ignore that lest history continues to repeat itself. The Jack the Ripper Museum has the chance of reminding us what it is to be a fallible human and perhaps provides us (if not in the original way intended) with the opportunity to learn by shock factor how we can be better humans. We have a cultural responsibility to acknowledge our personal politics, fight within the bounds of the law for what we believe and, above all, a duty to work together to produce evidence that there is hope for us all yet.
Dr K. Charlie Oughton is an Associate Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at University of the Arts, London. Oughton has also written extensively on representations of feminism in film.