It's a crisp autumn morning, the sort of day that needs no Instagram filter to make things look beautiful; the light is perfect as it is. Today is Halloween, and I'm here to cover a protest being organized by British feminist activists Fourth Wave against the Jack the Ripper Museum in the heart of East London.
Since opening in 2015, the museum has been the subject of criticism from activist groups such as Fourth Wave and the Women's Death Brigade, a faction of Class War, a British anti-austerity anarchist group, who argue that the museum glamourizes violence against women.
Today's protestors are particularly angry because they feel misled. When the museum was first announced, owner Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe—a former Google diversity chief—claimed it would examine the social history of women in London's East End. Instead, Palmer-Edgecumbe dedicated the museum entirely to Jack the Ripper, the 19th century serial killer known to have murdered at least five women in Whitechapel, which was then and remains now a deprived area of London. At the museum's opening in August, protestors throw rocks at the museum, smashing windows, while private security hired by Palmer-Edgecumbe attempted to hold them back.
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The museum sits at the intersection of a number of competing flash points for Britain in the 21st century. Its physical location in East London, a part of the capital which has rapidly gentrified in recent years, makes the for-profit museum subject to protest from locals and anti-austerity groups. They argue that people like Palmer-Edgecumbe represent modern-day colonialists, developing East London at the cost of making it impossible for working-class people to live there. In September, the Class War-led "Fuck Day Parade" against gentrification attracted headlines after limited damage was caused to shops and a cereal cafe neighboring the museum. Class War maintains they did not intend the protest to turn violent.
As I arrive, I see that Class War and the Women's Death Brigade have turned up in solidarity with Fourth Wave, though they hang back to let Fourth Wave lead the protest. There are rampant complaints about the heavy police presence; I count seven police officers to around forty protestors. Fourth Wave are resplendent in Halloween garb, the organizers wearing cat masks as they lead chants of "Ripper Ripper Out!" and "no more selfies with dead women!" One holds a blow-up doll of Palmer-Edgecumbe with a sign around his neck reading, "Worst Capitalist in the World".
I catch up with Fourth Wave. "We were promised a women's museum, and then when it opens, it celebrates a man who murdered women. It's like a sick joke," says organizer Sufei Lu. "Then we found out they were organizing a Halloween event where you were encouraged to take selfies with the body of Catherine Eddowes [one of the Ripper's victims]. Who wants to take a selfie next to someone who's been violently murdered?"
Despite having only been set up in March, Fourth Wave—which describes itself as a no-platform rejecting group that doesn't take a stance on issues without open discussion and is welcome to feminists of different political persuasions—has already amassed a following of over three hundred people. To them, the violence experienced by the Ripper's victims all those years ago is not dissimilar to the plight of women today. Lu tells me that "Just last week a British woman was murdered by her partner. You wouldn't take a selfie next to her body, so why should it be different that these women died a long time ago? We need to think about the fact that this is still happening, that women are still being killed all the time."
Historian Fern Ridell criticizes the museum on academic grounds. "I've been to the museum, and there are an awful lot of things of factual inaccuracies. Where's the curator? They say it's from a woman's point of view, but there's no information about the women before they were murdered. This isn't a museum, it's an profit-making 'experience.' It's such a shame because the East End has amazing women's history—from the East London Suffragettes to the Asian women who campaigned against racist murders in the 1970s. These are the stories we should be hearing."
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I put the protestors' concerns to a weary-sounding Palmer-Edgecumbe on the phone later that day. He is defiant, describing them as a "crowd of thugs" and pointing out that the media attention around the protests has boosted visitor numbers. I ask him what dialogue he's had with the protestors, a number of whom told me they'd been invited to the museum only to find out they'd be expected to pay for admission. He claims not to be aware of any such communication being made. After this piece was published, the museum's PR got in touch to tell me that a group of protestors have been shown around the museum previously.
Palmer-Edgecumbe affirms the historical integrity of the museum, stating that the top floor highlights the stories of the Ripper's victims before their deaths. "We are a serious museum that presents a factual event in history. We look at this from the perspective of women at the time, examining the social context that they lived in. We recreate Mary Jane Kelly's bedroom, for instance, so you can see what sort of life she had. I don't believe we are glorifying or sensationalizing violence against women at all."
I meet a representative of Class War's Women's Death Brigade, a blue-haired woman named Jane Nicholl whose friendly manner is at odds with the group's sinister-sounding name. A leading figure within the Brigade, Nicholl was arrested last year by for allegedly burning an effigy of London Mayor Boris Johnson at a protest. The case against her was later thrown out due to lack of evidence.
"[The museum is] a misogynist, vanity-driven gorefest. It is also a class issue, because [Palmer-Edgecumbe] is a rich man with a powerful position in the corporate world who is used to getting his way. This was meant to be a museum of working class women, but the museum just laughs at them. Before I retired, I worked helping victims of domestic and sexual violence, and we were overwhelmed with the numbers of women needing help. Palmer-Edgecumbe doesn't get it. Attitudes towards women haven't changed. We've got such a long way to go".
I push past the protestors to enter the museum. Inside I find a polite woman with an Eastern European accent sitting in front of a table covered in jelly sweets. I ask her whether Palmer-Edgecumbe or the museum's PR professional is in. When she says Mark is upstairs conducting an interview, and the PR is not yet in, I feel a rush of pity for her—manning the front desk on your own against protestors must be intimidating. I ask her about visitor numbers, and she tells me that they've been low, about four guests today—"but," she says, "people don't visit until the afternoon usually."
I step back out into a glorious Halloween morning. As I leave, a protestor hands me a leaflet inviting me to a candlelit vigil for the Ripper's victims. I stop to think about them: poor, disenfranchised women, some of whom were buried without friends or family present in unmarked graves. I think about the inspirational East End women who fought for female equality—women like the London match-girl strikers who demanded better working conditions and fair pay from their employers. I think about the East London suffragettes who campaigned for universal suffrage from their headquarters in Bow, just down the road.
I think about the statistics. One in 3 British women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and on average two women a week in the UK are killed by current or former partners, according to Women's Aid. And I wonder whether the match-girls or the Suffragettes would have been disappointed to see how little we've come since their time. As I think about this, just for a moment, the October air seems a little chillier than it did moments before.