Another Jack the Ripper exhibition
Co-Founder: Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution
There is a new Jack the Ripper exhibition at the Museum In the Docklands. This is the classier Jack the Ripper exhibition, and not to be confused with the tackier Jack the Ripper exhibition at The London Dungeon. That’s them that have the posters on the underground saying: “visit your local butcher”; tasteful.
The Museum In the Docklands however, is a very nice museum. They are obviously trying to get more people through their nice doors and they, probably rightly, think that a bit of sexualised violence against women will do the job....
Being not interested in Jack the Ripper at all, but very interested in the history of prostitution, I decided to go along and check it out. I’ve known about the exhibition for some time now. I actually went to meet with the Education Officer at the Museum a few months ago, in my capacity as Co-Founder of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution. We talked about what form the show was going to take and the possibility of putting on linked events, which could address the issue of prostitution today. The Museum also consulted with organisations such as Toynbee Hall’s ‘Safe Exit’ programme, which supports women involved in prostitution. In all, they seemed very keen to ensure the exhibition was as sensitive as is possible. Well, as much as it can be of course, given that its in the name of a serial murderer who preyed on vulnerable, marginalized women involved in the world’s oldest oppression, and who has been treated as some sort of national hero ever since…
I visited on a Sunday and it was still fairly busy, staff told me that it had sold out the day before. Entry was being staggered to ensure it didn’t get too full. I’ve been to a few exhibitions at the Museum In the Docklands and I don’t remember them being so busy. Clearly London’s most famous son is a money-spinner, incidentally I’d always thought that was Dick Whittington, but I guess boys and their cats are not as exciting as killers. Bit of a failing if you ask me. The exhibition is advertised as not being suitable for children under 12. Pretty depressing to think that children not much older than that are actually being exploited in prostitution on our own streets every night. Indeed the global average age of entry into prostitution is only 13 to 14 years old. So, thinking these happy thoughts I made my way through the heavy double doors and into the exhibition, wondering just how bad it was going to be. On entering, the lighting gets much dimmer, for a more spooky effect I suppose. The interpretive panels are all quite plain, with the names of the murder victims written in red and the dates they were discovered. There are newspapers from the day, actual police reports of the crime scenes all filled out in lovely, swirly script and genuine copies of hoax letters sent to the Met, amongst many other artefacts and original documents. However, as I went round the displays I did think that this was perhaps less about Jack the Ripper and more an exercise in “The History of the East End (by stealth)”. There is in fact, a lot of very enlightening information on the history of the East End. The way people lived, the poverty and the attitudes of ‘civilised’ society to these slums and the people struggling to survive in them; attitudes that were anything but civilised. All of this was very interesting and I would say came across as the main focus of the exhibition.
As for Jack the Ripper himself, it was pretty much as I expected. Lots of attention to what we have made of him and the legend he has become over the centuries. Ironically, this exhibition in his name, of course further adds to his legend. Our fascination with constructing the murderer as some sort of mysterious, romantic anti-hero is another focus of the show. This fascination is unfortunately, perfectly exposed in the words of Bonnie Greer, interviewed especially for this event and making up one of the short interpretive films that are interspersed throughout. I’d always liked Bonnie Greer, but I’ve gone right off her now. She seems to sincerely believe, or has anyway persuaded herself for this showcase, that Jack the Ripper represents the savage in us all. That his crimes illustrate the desires and intentions that lie behind our veneer of civility and that if we scratch the surface we all want to “get away with it” as he did. She’ll be arguing that pornography protects free speech next. Perhaps she already does. After seeing this interview with her, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Considering the great number of often ignored freedom fighters, real heroes and heroines in the world, it is a great shame that a brutal murderer of women is being presented as the embodiment of ‘real’ human nature and our desire to put two fingers up to authority. Yes indeed, Jack fought the law and Jack won. But this doesn’t make him a hero. It perhaps says more about the lack of interest in finding a killer who only targeted “fallen women” from the “unfortunate classes” and also, the difficulties of investigating crimes in a ghetto, which had almost been boarded up and left to get on with it, by the rest of society.
Is it only because he was never found and brought to justice that this serial murderer has become such a legend? Would we say that Steve Wright is a hero? Peter Sutcliffe or Robert Pickton? When we do know who they are society brands them monstors, but in the case of Jack the Ripper his cloak shaped void has been filled by a lot of ridiculous romanticised notions and topped off with a hat and cane. Who is he? He is everyman, he could be anyone. He is invisible like most punters are. The truth that should come screaming out of this exhibition is that men have been abusing and killing women in prostitution for centuries, that these women have always been vulnerable and that stigma has always attached to them rather than the men who choose to exploit them.
The press cuttings reproduced in the exhibition illustrate this, showing us that views towards women in prostitution have not changed much. The articles are obsessed with the gory details of how the women were killed, are clear to point out that they were involved in prostitution and prompt the reader to make all the judgements that go with that. It reminded me that society seems so much more interested in prostituted women when they are dead. But only if they are killed in a spectacularly gory way that is, and if there are a lot of killings at once, otherwise nobody is that bothered. Because of course, women are killed and assaulted every day and this never hits the headlines, quite simply: it’s so common it isn’t news. Here in our country, two women every week are murdered by a violent male partner, for example. There are around 80,000 rapes every year. For women in prostitution the levels of male violence are even higher. They go missing all the time, are raped, killed and brutalised all the time. Canadian studies estimate that women involved in prostitution face a murder rate 40 times higher than the average. I wonder what women in prostitution in the East End now, think of Jack The Ripper. Their voices are of course, a glaring omission from the exhibition. Does the fact that his legend is still pulling in the punters today serve as a reminder that we find serial murders of women in prostitution a source of intrigue and entertainment, possibly a bit sexy? What does it say about our society that we have accepted the buying and selling of women as inevitable and cannot bring ourselves to question this status quo, yet we buy books, queue up and spend money to find out more about a man who brutally murdered prostituted women?
Personally, I don’t find the disembowelling of women entertaining. I’d rather I hadn’t looked at the cigarette card style, sepia photos of the victims that are displayed at the end of the exhibition. Each one is lined up along a starkly lit, white circular wall that forms a sort of round, mini-gallery. There is a warning on the outside, that some may find the crime scene photos disturbing. They certainly are images I could have done without putting into my head, and now they are an addition to all the other horrors that men inflict on women that I know far too much about. As I walked round the photos, with the name of each woman underneath, like some sort of ghoulish roll call, it felt like a memorial; an unfitting memorial. It made me think that perhaps we do need somewhere to remember our dead, to remember all our sisters fallen in a struggle that has been going on for far too long. But this place is not in a museum exhibition dedicated to one of their killers.
When I left I felt rather sullied, and found myself wondering what I’d been part of. I couldn’t wait to get outside into the fresh air and sunlight so I chose not to take up the offer, advertised on my ticket, of a “Jack the Ripper meal” at the Museum’s attached café. Perhaps I missed out by not stopping to taste their take on “what Jack would have dined on..”. But then, gory details of woman killing doesn’t do much for my appetite.
The last words in the Jack the Ripper exhibition, somewhat ironically, read: “The endless obsession with Jack the Ripper glamourises serial murderers and trivialises violence against women.” Indeed. Perhaps one day the violence against women that is prostitution will only be a feature in museums, and we will all look back in shame at what we condoned. I hope that everyone who visits this exhibition will ask themselves what they can do to make that day a reality.