The internet has gone into uproar after a new Jack the Ripper museum was unveiled in London’s East End this week. The museum has rightly been attacked as a tasteless and macabre celebration of the most extreme act of misogyny imaginable. For those that don’t know, Jack the Ripper was a notorious 19th-century serial killer, who is thought to have murdered several sex workers in the impoverished Whitechapel district of the East End. The killer’s modus operandi was particularly gruesome, with victims having their throats slashed before their bodies were mutilated, this typically involving the opening of the abdomen and removal of organs. As an ultimate attack on the female body, victims were often found to have had their uterus extracted. Though numerous and varied theories have been floated around over the years, the identity of the killer has never been determined, and it is theorised that he could have been responsible for many more murders.
This story is not notable just for the gruesome subject matter of the museum itself. After all, it’s hardly the first; London is packed with attractions dedicated to the dark and grisly, from the London Dungeon, to numerous murder tours, to the Tower of London, itself only a short distance away from the latest edition, which can be found on Cable Street. The real kick in the teeth is that the museum was originally proposed as a celebration of East London’s women through the ages, including the Suffragettes, so when the construction boards came down last week, the area’s residents understandably got a bit of a shock. The owner has since explained that during the construction process it was decided that the original idea—to “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, [analysing] the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period to the present day”—was unfeasible, or rather that the Jack the Ripper angle would be “more interesting”. They then top it off with a subtle bit of victim-blaming, promising that the museum “is absolutely not celebrating the crimes of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place”. Obviously, women are so not buying it, and there are already tentative plans in the works to make good on what was originally promised.
Really, why on earth did Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe—the man behind the travesty, and a former head of diversity at Google, would you believe—think this was an acceptable idea? What’s next? A Harold Shipman museum to celebrate the history of the NHS? A tribute to the role young people play in politics with a shrine to Anders Breivik? Of course, these too would be sure to look at just how the victims got themselves into the situation of being murdered in the first place. Hopefully the comparison makes you baulk, but not before you realise there’s not too much between them. All three concepts involve the idolisation of people who committed monstrous acts against vulnerable, defenceless people. If any one of them is acceptable, then why not all?
Of course, some might argue that the passage of time is what differentiates in this case. After all, these murders occurred over a hundred years ago. Surely a bit of morbid curiosity is acceptable now? Well, that depends on whether you want to separate these specific murders from the acts in general. Violence against women is hardly a thing of the past, no less so violence against sex workers, who represent a particularly threatened demographic.
In the 70s, Peter Sutcliffe (A.KA. the Yorkshire Ripper) murdered 13 women and assaulted numerous others, many of whom were prostitutes. In 2006, Steven Wright (the Suffolk Strangler) murdered five sex-workers in Suffolk. Joel Rifkin murdered at least nine in New York City in the early 90s—no missing persons reports were filed for any of his victims. Gary Ridgway (Green River Killer) was convicted in 2003 for the murder of at least 48 women, mostly sex workers. The list goes on. Doesn’t it make you wonder what the families of these more recent victims would think to the idea that the murder of their daughters, sisters, mothers, could one day be trivialised within the walls of a tourist attraction? They probably wouldn’t be overly thrilled. The point at hand is that these women, whether they were born in the 19th or the 21st century, are the same; they have the same story, and its one of desperation, marginalization and ruination.
Today, female prostitutes are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women, who already account for 70% of serial killer victims. We still live in a world in which women in the sex trade are at constant risk, not only from the potentially dangerous people they come into contact with through their work, but from the dehumanising way in which the world views them; a dehumanisation that contributes to their predation by killers. Sex workers are worthless, unimportant and they won’t be missed. When we open museums dedicated to the men behind the murders of these women, when we ogle and marvel at the despicable acts they commit, when we buy tacky merchandise upon which the victims have been ‘reduced to a red smudge’, we propagate such thinking and keep the undervaluing of both women and sex workers alive and well. To glorify any act of misogyny is to glorify misogyny itself, and that, Mr. Palmer-Edgecumbe, is something no PR spin can change.