museums opinion Uncategorized

Jack the Ripper Museum – RIP?

I have tragic news for you all - 5 years after opening, London’s Jack The Ripper Museum has declared insolvency - so what happens now?

The museum that opened in 2015 to a cacophony of protests, petitions and national outrage has run out of money. News of the insolvency spread like wild fire online (although thanks to Dr Louise Raw discovering this fact, not because the museum itself announced it.) And understandably, thinking the museum was out of money and, again, with no word from The Jack the Ripper Museum, people assumed it was about to shut its doors.

Apparently not – a spokesperson for the museum told me:

‘I am confirming we are not closed; we have closed for a few days due to Covid 19 and lack of tourists in London.  You can check our website for updates and there is a notice in our window.’

I did ask for a statement regarding the insolvency and financial future of the museum, none has been given at the time of writing. So according to the museum, they are not closed (admitedly, they didn’t say they wouldnt be permantly closing, despite being asked…but benefit of the doubt). Which is good news for the museum’s staff, because hey, during covid the museum sector has already seen far to many redunacies. BUT that being said, it’s not all good news, because having declared themselves insolvent, The Jack the Ripper Museum is on pretty shaky ground.

So, what went wrong and can the museum ever be turned around? Let’s look at the issues:

Issue one – Lack of Trust

It would not be unfair to say that The Jack the Ripper Museum was founded on lies. The community who live around the museum were told that it was going to be a women’s history museum. It wasn’t until the signage came up that anyone knew otherwise.

And it wasn’t just the local community. The museums architect, Andrew Waugh, publicly came out and said he was ‘duped’ into working on the museum, after being told it was a women’s history museum. Saying:

“The local community was duped, we were duped. They came to us and said they had no money but that this is a real heartfelt project. It is incredibly important to celebrate women in politics in the East End. We really ran with it. We did it at a bargain-basement fee, at cost price because we thought it was a great thing to do.”

To make amends, the museum announced that they would be partnering with a women’s domestic violence charity – which again, turned out to be wholly untrue. The charity had never been contacted by the museum and later asked to be taken off their website.

Then came the museums claim that the name of the museum was never actually, The Jack the Ripper Museum. In a 2015 interview with The Londonist, museum founder, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe explained:

The full name of the museum is ‘The Jack the Ripper and the History of Women in East London’. The frontage is not finished and still in the planning stage.’

Yet the name remains the same, as did the frontage until the local community demanded it was taken down in 2017.

Issue Two – No comment

In light of all of this, The Jack the Ripper Museum choosing to disengage from social media and press seemed understandable, if a little petulant. Faced with this utter shit storm immediately upon opening, museum management could either apologise, shutter and makes amends, or just dig their heels in and weather it out. And of course, they chose the latter option.

But the issue here is that this phase of battening down the hatches has never stopped. The museum regularly either refuse or ignore requests for statements (even getting that tiny quote at the top of this article was like pulling teeth). And of course, they have set an unparalleled precedent for social media account blocking. Whenever there is even a hint of online criticism or discontent, that block button is quickly pressed.

Having worked in museum communications I can tell you that I’ve never seen a museum do this before. And that’s not because The Jack the Ripper Museum are ground-breaking communication mavericks. No – it’s because this strategy of refusing to engage and burying their heads in the sand is, frankly, insane.

For one thing by doing this the museum alienate themselves from journalists, the history community and you know, general visitors. Which has massively reduced the amount of press and social engagement they are able to generate after that initial wave of negative publicity when they opened. When was the last time you saw them in a museum Twitter chat or an article on them that wasn’t wholly negative and from 2015-2017?

But arguably the biggest example of why this communications strategy is so catastrophically bad is that when the internet found out The Jack the Ripper Museum had declared insolvency and could be shuttering its doors – the museum seemed to have had no idea. When I asked them about this claims, they said they had never seen or heard anything about them. If true, that’s almost certainly because they’d blocked everyone who was sharing the news from their social media (with the vast majority of these people being female historians)

This meant that for several days The Jack the Ripper Museum management were seemingly totally unaware that news that their museum was closing was being spread around social media. And to really emphasis what a monumental clusterfuck that is, let us remember this: the news of the museums insolvency and probable closure was readily accepted – without a statement from the museum needed. That’s a pretty damning indictment of how The Jack the Ripper Museum chooses to engage with the public,

Issue Three – the actual experience

Ok, lets hit pause on talking about the topics and contents inside the museum (don’t worry I’ll get to that momentarily). What about the actual visitor experience? Is it any good?

Well for £10 general admission (£8 for kids) you get access to the small museum, which lies over six floors with roughly one room per floor. These rooms are a mix of walk-in scenes with little to no interpretation (for example the ‘Mitre Square murder scene’) and walk in scenes with light interpretation (e.g the ‘morgue’ and ‘one of the Ripper victims rooms’)

It’s clearly designed to be immersive, as you flit from streets to ‘Jack’s living room’, with each room having its own soundscape, which runs the gamut from a women’s screams and cries of ‘murder!’, to light folky singing. Effort has been made; there just seemingly wasn’t the budget for it to be well executed. Many areas are very sparsely dressed and most of the rooms are inhabited with some kind of dodgy waxwork with an equally dodgy wig.

The Mitre Square ‘scene’

Then there’s the total lack of quality historic content. It’s all very vague; ‘here’s a Victorian bonnet, maybe a victim wore one like it.’ With short and non-descript panels on the walls and staircases to provide light information. It all feels very last minute presentation and you can see why some visitors have compared it to a live version of the Jack the Ripper Wikipedia page.

On the whole, you can see the entire museum in an hour, but when I’ve visited I’ve seen people in and out within ten minutes – shuffle around, take a selfie with a murdered woman’s waxwork and you’re done. There’s no revisit value. Even the most hardened Ripperologist would struggle on finding a reason to return. Once you’ve gotten past the end of the pier house of horrors ‘I can’t believe this exists’ cheap thrill – there is nothing there.

And that can in no small way have contributed to The Jack the Ripper Museums money troubles. After all, no small museum can finically survive on a diet that consists solely of one off ‘well I was going to the Tower of London, might as well pop in’ visits.

Issue four – It shouldn’t exist

At least not like this. Of course, there’s the argument that a museum that claimed to be a women’s history museum and then turned out to be a Jack the Ripper museum shouldn’t exist in the first place. But it does. And (at least according to their management) it will continue to exist.

But it shouldn’t as it is now. Way back in 2015 we were living in a world that was pre-Hallie Rubenhold’s, The Five. When people could say to The Jack the Ripper Museum, please don’t just shove up pictures of the victims dead bodies in a make shift morgue and say that’s their whole story. And they could shrug, because it would be hard to find out more information on every victim and they were such a small team that they just didn’t have capacity…

Well, welcome to 2020, when Hallie Rubenhold has published a bestselling book on the lives of each victim. It’s been out for a year, proving that:

  1. Yes, the information does exist and you have easy access to it
  2. People are clearly interested in knowing more about these women and their lives.

So now is the time to change The Jack the Ripper Museum. Take down the morgue, the murder scene and ‘Jack’s sitting room’ and replace it with new content that has substance, isn’t wholly degrading and might just draw people into your museum.

Because, let’s be real here Jack the Ripper Museum – after your insolvency and the last five years of hate being blasted your way – what do you have to lose? Clearly, you can’t go on like you currently are. Something has to change for you to survive. So maybe that something doesn’t have to be sticking in another mutilated waxwork.

Maybe it could be having several rooms dedicated to telling the lives of the five known victims. Maybe you could have more space explaining what life was like in the East End at that time. How 1 in 5 women were sex workers. How the 1885 Law Amendment closed brothels and put many of these women in danger. How in fact there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of those five victims were sex workers, but what would it matter if they were?

We will never know who Jack the Ripper was, but we should use that mystery to uncover a troubling but fascinating past. And yes, that will still be interesting, there’s now hard data to show people are interested. Yes, you can still have selfie moments in foggy London streets and things for people to play with (e.g try out a penny bed!). You just don’t need to capitalise on the violent deaths of women to make money.

Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly

The Jack the Ripper Museum is never going to be the museum we were promised and wanted it to be (luckily, The East End Women’s museum is opening soon, so we now have that space) However, if The Jack The Ripper Museum really is going to stay open, that it doesn’t just need to change – it has to.

1 comment

  1. Well said! I’ve read The Five and I totally agree. They’re not The London Dungeon or Tussauds Chamber of Horrors. They’re a small, dubious museum who need some help, if only for the sake of their staff… Why not try some historical facts and a reason for people to want to revisit?
    Another brilliant blog. Thank you.☺

    Like

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