The revelation that a museum promising to be ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’ is instead opening as a Jack the Ripper Museum – telling the story of a Victorian serial killer – has rightly sparked outrage and astonishment. But eschewing social history in favour of misogyny and murder is far from uncommon in our public historical storytelling. One of those behind this museum, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, explained his decision to change its focus:
‘We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.’
(You can read more of the original planning application here.)
This project is only the furthest extreme of a general trend in historical presentation, which takes ‘interesting history’ to mean ‘violent and masculine’. I had assumed that the issue here was confined to the Middle Ages, where so often public historical events or ‘living history’ are regurgitations of scenes of (occasionally chivalric) violence. But the case of the Jack the Ripper Museum suggests that even the Modern Age – with its photographs, newspapers, written testimony for all walks of life, and concrete stories of political struggle between classes and sexes – has fallen victim to this trend.
I would argue that there needs to be a serious examination of our public history and the story it is telling. Too often, 'interesting' history means 'violent'. How else to explain the endless posters covered in armoured or khaki-clad men advertising heritage events? Why else does 'bank holiday weekend' in heritage terms so largely mean 'imitated fisticuffs on a lawn by a castle'?
Where are the narratives of women in these events? In fact, never mind half the population – a good 90% are excluded from these stories. The poor, the labouring, the enslaved of both sexes; they didn't participate in tournaments or head off to war on noble steeds, glistening in their full metal jackets. They did, however, till the land that fed the upper classes. They received, sought and occasionally abused the lords' and ladies' law courts. They brewed, they baked, they sang, they danced, they told stories and jokes, they went to the toilet on mysteriously constructed middens - in short, they undertook any number of fascinating and now arcane activities that intrigue and enthrall modern audiences. So why is there no 'serfs weekend' to set against the 'knights tournament'?
Because the domestic and the working class have for some reason been deemed 'uninteresting'. Take it from a convert: I also grew up thinking dungeons were more interesting than wells, then met teachers and historical interpreters who made me question that assumption and yearn to learn more. No history is boring. What matters is the way it's told.
Leaving aside for a moment the extraordinarily distasteful victim-blaming that seems to be behind the Jack the Ripper Museum’s narrative (they want to look ‘at why and how the [murdered] women got in that situation in the first place.’ – um, because someone chose to murder them?), the moving of the historical goalposts here is a real shot in the foot.
Because I for one – and the twitter outcry suggests I'm far from alone – would love a museum about women of the East End, not about half a dozen
tragic victims. My own family was part of the myriad mobile communities who
populated the East End for generations. I know nothing about them. Because they
were poor and died young, they didn't live long enough to tell me their stories
nor did they live 'interestingly' enough to leave marks in most written
records. (Although the presence of a single 'burlesque performer' called Robert
in our family's 1901 census does rather intrigue.)
I would dearly love to know how they lived, what they ate, where they went, what they did with their free time - basically, what their common or garden, unremarkable lives consisted of. That is the impulse that we should be fostering in ourselves and in future generations - empathy, interest, exploration, curiosity, extrapolation from the few scattered threads of 'fact' to weave together a tapestry of experience and possibility. Not the prurient interest in torture, misogyny and death, in men who kill women and get away with it.
East end children, image by photographer Horace Warner (1871-1939). Picture via www.pirouetteblog.comDoes this really matter though? Shouldn't people be free to learn about murderers and watch kings on horseback if they want? Is this not just a case of – brace yourself for the inevitable – 'PC gone mad'? Well, of course it is fine to hold knight’s tournaments and Jack the Ripper exhibitions, if they are one event among many that reflect a more inclusive past.
But too much time, money and attention is consistently spent on these masculine, exclusive representations, leaving little alternative narrative offered in public history. (Honourable mention here to Audley End House’s service wing, St Fagans National History Museum and Beamish Living History Museum’s varied rural and urban landscapes – I'd be very happy to hear of more.)
And if you are not offered a history that incorporates your own – or your family's – experience, how can you feel invested in it? Tales of serial killers and monarchs are woefully unrepresentative of the reality of our collective history. We are a world, and especially a nation, who were historically and remain predominantly made up of workers. Men, women and children who moved in search of work, who settled in hopes of brighter futures, who agitated for greater liberties – if nothing else, this year when we commemorate and question Magna Carta should have achieved a sense of that.
To present a version of history that is glaringly white, rich and male (not to mention brutally violent) is an aberration from historical reality far more than interpreting one that is multilingual, labouring, half female and predominantly peaceful.
These stories are a crucial part of our collective historical narrative, and they deserve to be told.
This is an amended version of an article that first appeared on Lauren Johnson's website.