I first got in touch with the Jack the Ripper Museum a few weeks ago, after hearing about it in the media.
I’d watched a couple of films and documentaries on the Ripper case, and found the mystery around it interesting. The stuff I’ve seen generally provided good insight about everyday life in Victorian London, which is fascinating to me also.
In case you’ve been living under a rock or haven’t read the Evening Standard for the past few weeks – same thing – the museum has caused much controversy since its recent opening.
Originally introduced as the UK’s first museum on women’s history, it has shocked many by instead focusing on the mysterious figure who slaughtered them gruesomely in the latter parts of 1888. As a result, there have been many protests outside the museum campaigning for its closure. The project has been described as distasteful, and a trivial sensationalisation of violence against women.
It is also a reminder of the horrific conditions all people had to endure living in the East End, the most deprived areas of 19th century London. From a historical perspective, this is undoubtedly valuable and Mark’s arguments, in my opinion, certainly aren’t without merit.
I originally emailed them, asking if they would be interested in the prospect of a blog review. I’d seen all the negative press, but virtually no museum reviews so I thought I’d go for it myself.
I was surprised to receive a reply from Mark. Having seen his name in the press a lot, it was nice to see he took time away from the media storm to address my query. He even offered to give me a private tour himself.
We arranged to meet one evening outside work hours. As I arrived, Mark was involved in what seemed a passionate press interview so I decided to start exploring alone, and resist the temptation to eavesdrop on his exchange.
The museum had some interesting reading, though it was smaller than expected and the content rather limited. The main rooms included a mock up scene of a victim being discovered by a police officer, a distinguished Victorian living room and a policeman’s office.
Original artifacts and copies were not clearly marked, so it was tricky to identify what was what. Some of the authentic relics included remarkably preserved newspaper cuttings from the time, and belongings of a policeman who worked closely on the case.
Two rooms made an impact on me. The first one was the reconstructed bedroom where Mary Jane Kelly was killed on 9th November 1988, in what was the most horrendous murder. It had information on the Canonical 5, the name given to the 5 women most researchers agree were killed by the same infamous hand.
The other was a chilly autopsy room, which featured real postmortem pictures of the victims. That was creepy as well.
When I eventually met Mark, he seemed as tired as I expected him to be. He was a nice guy though, and we had a brief but good chat both about some of the specifics of the Ripper case and the lives of his victims, although he was clearly in a bit of a rush. After much consideration, I decided not to ask about the controversy.
Not only was the time lacking for an in depth conversation, but the guy clearly just came out of yet another tough interview. Out of respect for his hospitality, I opted to bite my tongue and give him a break.
So what did I make of the museum?
There is a quote in the museum which states that the Ripper case did more to highlight the indigent living conditions of the East End than any legislator ever could have. And that’s the argument Mark follows to justify his theme.
However while it may be of interest for a passing tourist, the museum lacks the depth and size necessary to fulfill the bold double contribution it claims to make.
The quick overview of the Ripper case it provides would probably leave the most avid Ripperologist – yeah, that’s a thing! – looking for more. Likewise, it’s contribution to the history of women is very concise indeed.
On the other hand, I found the visit to be a genuinely sinister and uneasy experience, which to me this is the museum’s true USP. Visiting the ancient house about Britain’s most bloodthirsty serial killer, on my own at night left a strange impression, although I’m skeptical as to whether such encounter can be fully replicated on a sunny, touristy Saturday afternoon.
The Jack the Ripper Museum is an ambitious attempt at conciliating the sociological history of an overlooked part of British history, along with the world’s most notorious criminal case.
However, in casting the net too widely over two substantial areas of research, it falls short of convincingly covering either. By choosing the Ripper angle, it’s picked a strong ‘brand’ which has attracted a lot of attention. But it has also very predictably backfired.
If you’d like to make up your own opinion, you can visit the Jack the Ripper Museum at 12 Cable St, London E1 8JG. Open from 9.30-18.30, 7 days a week.