"The museum will recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history, telling the story of how they have been instrumental in changing society. It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period to the present day."
which, it must be said if your intention is to open a museum about Jack the Ripper is misleading to say the least, and also in Public Relations terms either an incredibly shrewd move or a catastrophe depending on just how much press you want to get and what you want it to say.
Anyway, I'd been vaguely aware of the furore thanks to social media and so, as I'm a great believer in a philosophy of 'go and find out for yourself', I decided to go and find out for myself what it was like. After I'd decided to go I learned that Middle-Class displacement activity group Class War would be holding a protest at the museum when I was planning to go:
So naturally I decided to go anyway. Only more so.
Saturday afternoon dawned bright and early as I sauntered down Cable Street to the museum where the protest was in full swing with upwards of a dozen protesters and maybe half a dozen bored looking policemen. The protest seemed to involve standing round doing nothing but apparently the plan was to symbolically murder the owner of the museum in effigy, complete with huge amounts of fake blood and screams, which I was unfortunate enough to miss.
Because I'm me I got chatting with the protesters, who didn't manage to dissuade me from my objective of going in but I did learn they really like swearing quite a lot. As a last attempt to persuade me of the rightness of their cause one asked me why I wanted to go in.
"Well, I was going to write about it", I explained.
"Ooooh", she replied, putting on the very snootiest accent she could muster, because writing is clearly bourgeois. "Ai was goieng to wreyte abouewt et".
Even this sally didn't dent my iron will. I was not to be put off by even the most skillful of debate. Sadly, I was to be put off by one of the bored-looking policemen telling me the owner had locked the door as he feared violence so I wandered round the corner to Wilton's Music Hall and had a pint instead.
I figured it wouldn't take more than an hour for the champions of class struggle and the people to get bored and fuck off home, and I was right. Heading back to the Museum after a pint I found the protesters gone, several pigs worth of fake blood on the pavement, and a solitary policemen looking even more cheesed off than before hanging round outside. The high and mighty appeared unsmitten in spite of the efforts of Class War.
"It's open again now, mate", he said.
Anyway, the Jack the Ripper Museum.
The first thing that you need to know about the Jack the Ripper museum is that it costs £12 to get in, which is the same as it costs to get into Winchester Cathedral and see the Magna Carta, so you have to expect something pretty good for that sort of money.
The second thing you need to know about the Jack the Ripper Museum is that you're not going to see something pretty good for that sort of money.
I have a deep and abiding love for shameless tourist traps. I once drove most of a day to get to Land's End simply for the pleasure of paying massively over the odds for a bag of cheap fudge and going round the 'Land's End Experience' which I can honestly say was anything but and loved every second of it. So the Jack the Ripper Museum was everything I'd hoped for and more.
Situated in a converted six-storey house, the museum has five - count 'em, five - rooms. Once you've paid your twelve nicker and got the leaflet, it's up the stairs to Room 1 which contains a waxwork replica of this famous woodcut:
And that's it. There's a trolley with some sacks of potatoes on it as scene dressing on it, and as you walk in a recording of a pub door opening and a voice going "Gor blimey strike a light guv'nor John squire up the apples chim-chim-cheroo there's a lady been done in I bet by Jack the Ripper" or words to that effect plays, and then repeats every minute or so for as long a you're in there. There's a replica of the famous Charles Booth Map of poverty on the wall with the Ripper's victim locations marked on it and that's your lot. I was delighted.
Truth be told there's only so much you can do with a waxwork of a policeman, a sack of potatoes and a map of murder victims but I stretched it out as long as I could before heading upstairs to the second floor, where the leaflet promised me a replica of Jack the Ripper's living room. I was quite keen to see Jack the Ripper's living room as I reckoned there must have been quite a lot of serious research gone into designing it - not least finding out who Jack the Ripper was for starters. What I actually got was a replica of a late Victorian living room and the question posed: "Can you find clues to Jack the Ripper's identity? Was he an Aristocrat or a doctor?" like those are the only options.
This was a harder question than it at first appeared. On one wall hung a top hat and opera cape and on the other a bowler hat and a raincoat, presumably to represent the entire range of possibilties. Beyond that there was a shelf of books, some of which I own, which leaves open the possibility that I'm Jack the Ripper, some furnishings, which were inconclusive, and a tray of surgeons' tools all stained with blood, from which I concluded that Jack the Ripper was a a complete moron to leave them sitting round in the living room for the servants to find when he got home to watch Strictly.
The only real clues I found were a gramophone, which impressed me deeply as the gramophone wasn't invented until 1895 and Jack the Ripper was out killing in 1888, and a fez on the table. Putting these clues together led me to the conclusion that Jack the Ripper wasn't an aristocrat or a doctor - he was Tommy Cooper with a Time Machine, which I'll bet £5 isn't a theory anyone has come up with before.
Armed with my theory it was onwards up the stairs to the next floor, which was a replica of a 19th century police detective's office. Now I've never been in a police detective's office modern or otherwise so I can't speak to the accuracy, but I felt this the best exhibit of the lot. The display was high quality and actually well thought out, with a waxwork of a detective puzzling over some of the many berserk letters the police received from Ripper wannabes (including the famous "Dear Boss" letter, and one or two displays which actually appeared to be genuine) and a lot of information about the crimes presented on the walls as if of a policeman trying to find a pattern.
In fact, as I wandered around the room, scanning the letters ("i wil draw my blade across her belly...i will kill and kill agane...teh women wil not kno what hav hit them, ect &c) something profound did strike me. These letters were the 19th century equivalent of twitter.
Presented with human suffering and despair and almost certain anonymity coupled with immediate gratification, many people - possibly hundreds - took the opportunity to voice their their hate. Not only did they distract from the real investigation, but they gave an insight into a side of human psyche which is normally hidden or private but when given reign it can burst forth. This mob was not constrained by 140 characters, but it was composed of the same people separated only by time. I was mildly surprised that the displays in the museum had actually succeeded in making me think. This wasn't what I had expected at all. With a more sombre mien I headed upstairs to the next room, a replica of a Victorian prostitutes bedroom.
Thankfully here the general tasteless crapness of the enterprise reasserted itself in full glory. If you want to see a decent replica of a Victorian pauper's bedroom I recommend the excellent Dennis Sever's House which is, quite frankly, everything the Jack the Ripper Museum aspires to be and just plain isn't. In contrast the Jack the Ripper Museum contains the only Victorian prostitutes' bedroom that has ever existed with furniture dating from the 1930s and one of those crap porcelain Spaniels like they sell at car boot sales on the mantelpiece. It was a relief to get back to composing entertaining LJ posts rather than thinking, if I'm being honest.
This room also contained the only - I mean only - reference to the "It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period" mentioned in the planning application. On one wall there's a display which says something like "Could more have been done to alleviate the desperate poverty these women found themselves in and so prevent their tragic end? What do you think?" And that is it. That is it. Quite seriously, that's the only time given in the museum to what their application suggested the museum would actually be about. One might think the application was, in hindsight, a tad misleading. You might go so far as to call it an outright fabrication.
Anyway, after speculating on whether Tommy Cooper had stopped off in the 1930's for furnishings to help Mary Kelly do the place up a bit it was down to the basement to the last room, a replica of the mortuary where the Ripper's victims were taken. By 'replica' I mean 'This is what a very small mortuary in a basement might have looked like". I think there was something up with the drains under the floor as well, truth be told.
And that was it. It was back up the stairs to the shop, where I was tempted by "Keep Calm I'm Jack the Ripper" t-shirt or a membership to the International Society of Ripperologists.
Back when I was at school, at the age of about 9, I started the David Fan Club. It got a few members largely because I didn't tell anyone what they were joining until after they'd signed but that's by-the-by. When you joined you got a badge, a membership card and a regular newsletter updating you on David activities.
Well, that's pretty much what you get if you join the International Society of Ripperologists. There's a chatroom where you can hang out with the sort of people who like to sit on the internet and talk about century-old murders if that's your bag as well, but for some reason I wasn't tempted.
I wandered out with mixed feelings about the whole affair. On the one hand I love shameless and tawdry tourist traps, and the guy behind the counter was clearly upset and shaken by the protest and he seemed a lot nicer and gentler than the protesters so my sympathies were with him. Clearly the vitriol his plan had generated for him wasn't what he'd expected.
But on the other hand, the whole day had been an experience in hate and human negativity. The wish to shock and distress in the "Dear Boss" letters a hundred and thirty years ago is the same wish as in the twitter mob or, frankly, in the class war protesters stabbing an effigy to death complete with screams and gallons of fake blood.
The Ripper Museum is tasteless, but no worse than the London Dungeon or many other such attractions. It's also an easy target because it's just one fairly short and nervous guy behind a counter who'd tried it on to get planning permission.
I don't mind the rip-off aspect of the whole thing. In fact, I expected it to be crap. It's part of the reason I went, because I love tat with all my heart. Would I recommend it? No, of course not. I'd recommend you went to Dennis Severs House mentioned above, which is tremendous.
However, when I left home that morning the last thing I expected was to actually come out of the museum feeling sorry for the guy who ran it, but I did. He was a nice enough guy who clearly had had a nasty shock but wanted us to enjoy his museum and get what we could for the £12 he extracted from us. Did I like his tactics? No, not really, but murdering him in effigy in front of him complete with blood and screams put me firmly in his corner.
The other thing I certainly didn't expect was for the museum to make me particularly think, but the circumstances of when I visited resulted in me doing just that - just not in the way the protesters wanted. The combination of the loathing in the letters from people pretending to be the ripper, and the fake blood and palpable vitriol on the pavement outside meant I wandered home feeling sad and dispirited by how easy some people find it to hate; especially when they've got an easy target who they don't reckon will hit back.