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Surprise, Women’s History Museum Actually Devoted to Jack the Ripper!

The Jack the Ripper museum revealed its facade last week (photo by @lonniebeee/Instagram)
The Jack the Ripper Museum revealed its façade last week (photo by @lonniebeee/Instagram)

The founder of the controversial, soon-to-open Jack the Ripper Museum — initially presented as a museum that celebrates women in London’s East End — is defending his vision of it as a site to explore local women’s history and stories. Reports, however, suggest that he had always intended to establish a museum devoted to London’s most notorious serial killer, misleading officials and East End locals along the way.

Yesterday, the London Evening Standard first reported that former Google diversity chief Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe submitted a proposal last July promising his institution would open as “the first women’s museum in the UK.” Tower Hamlet council approved his plan later last year. The museum instead has revealed itself as one devoted to the unsolved, serial crimes of Jack the Ripper, who brutally murdered a number of women in the late 19th century. Uproar has followed the revelation of the museum’s true subject, with residents saying they were “completely hoodwinked and deceived” and others accusing the institution of glorifying gendered violence.

Palmer-Edgecumbe, who served as human resources director of several museums in South Africa before joining Google, argued that the proposal was genuine but then evolved over time. “We did plan to do a museum about social history of women,” he told the Evening Standard, “but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.”

1888 newspaper broadsheet referring to the murderer as "Leather Apron" (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
1888 newspaper broadsheet referring to the murderer as “Leather Apron” (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

However, Palmer-Edgecumbe had previously co-registered an office on March 23, 2012 under the name “Jack the Ripper Museum Limited,” then located in Kent; its status is now listed as dissolved as of March 25, 2014, with net assets of negative £738 (~$1,150). Tower Hamlet council received Palmer-Edgecumbe’s application for the museum of East End women’s history just five months later. His plan at the time promised “a world class museum that celebrates the historic, current, and future contribution of the women of the East End.” The 35-page proposal also included several examples of proposed content, from a survey of the development of women’s working conditions to an examination of the Suffragette movement.

“Our mission is to inspire a passion for, and understanding of, the history of women in East London and beyond,” the application reads. “We will do this through increasing public awareness, appreciation, and understanding of the role of London’s women in the social political, and cultural heritage of London.”

Apparently the history of London’s women most in need of understanding is the one associated with the city’s most notorious murderer, who butchered his female victims in grizzly settings and circumstances. The museum, whose logo is the silhouette of a man in a frock coat and top hat with a pool of blood by his feet, is now slated to feature four floors and a basement mortuary of original and representative of artifacts. Newspaper clippings of the crimes provide the narrative, while medical instruments and knives allude to the violent murders. On view in the basement, “for over 16s only,” are the original, explicit autopsy photos of the victims. Somehow, Palmer-Edgecumbe claims that this deviates only slightly from his proposal of July 2014.

On the museum’s website, a message from Palmer-Edgecumbe also cites his original intentions, claiming that the museum “in no way glorifies or glamorises Jack the Ripper, quite the opposite, it presents the women of the East End’s story for the first time.” The Ripper crimes, Palmer-Edgecumbe explains, will shed light on the social context of East End during that era, touching upon issues such as poor living conditions and economic hardship.

Jack the Ripper depicted as a phantom in "Nemesis of Neglect," a 1888 cartoon (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
Jack the Ripper depicted as a phantom in “Nemesis of Neglect,” a 1888 cartoon (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

It’s unclear when Palmer-Edgecumbe decided on his “more interesting angle” to approach the history of London’s women, but North London writer Chris Brosnahan — who discovered Palmer-Edgecumbe’s first museum registration — claims that the alleged turn of events happened this year. If that’s true, Palmer-Edgecumbe’s proposal, with its images of women fighting for fair wages and the recognition of black trade unions, was likely intentionally misleading since the museum’s team started collecting Ripper-related artifacts just five months after it submitted its proposal. As historian Rebecca Rideal discovered last December, a private collector had purchased items belonging to a police officer involved in the Ripper case, paying over five times their expected value. A link to a BBC News article about the auction appears on the museum’s “Press” page and those Ripper items, as Rideal noted, will surface in the new museum’s third floor, which is set up as a police station in which the objects will be presented as “one of the rarest Ripperologists collections of recent times.”

Palmer-Edgecumbe assured the Evening Standard that his museum “is absolutely not celebrating the crime of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place.” Only the first visitors exploring the museum after it opens (“next Tuesday,” according to the Evening Standard) will be able to tell if it achieves that goal — that is, if it opens. Locals are reportedly attempting to overturn the council’s decision, although Tower Hamlets said it ultimately has no control over how the museum plans its exhibitions. It is, however, “investigating the extent to which unauthorised works may have been carried out.” Hyperallergic reached out to Palmer-Edgecumbe but has not yet received a response.

Notably, the museum intends to donate a portion of its profits to “local charities that promote women’s rights and challenge child trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation. The first charity we will donate to is www.evesforwomen.org.uk.” The link (which has since been removed) was broken, and although I assume Palmer-Edgecumbe had good intentions — as he allegedly did for his museum — and meant to share the website for Eaves Housing for Women, somehow such efforts seem to be implemented more for the sake of public appeasement than out of a sense of genuine goodwill or philanthropy. Meanwhile, a group dedicated to the history of East London Suffragettes hopes to make good on Palmer-Edgecumbe’s alleged project by establishing an actual East End women’s museum, calling for support on social media.

(screenshot via @elsuffragettes/Twitter)
(screenshot via @elsuffragettes/Twitter)
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