Why I am protesting against the Jack the Ripper Museum

The first women’s museum in the UK’ turned out to be dedicated to Jack the Ripper. ‘Activist academic’ Lisa Mckenzie wants scholars to protest

August 5, 2015
jack the ripper musem shadwell
Source: Alamy

Shadwell, in East London, thought it was getting “the first women’s museum in the UK”, an attraction that would celebrate women over the past 150 years. What it has got instead is the “Jack the Ripper Museum”, dedicated to the notorious 19th-century murderer of female prostitutes.

As academics, we are very busy people. We have teaching responsibility for those excited and curious minds and, of course, our research.

Is there time for anything else? Taking part in protests, for example, as I intend to at the site of the new museum at 6pm this evening?

As a sociologist, I can’t help myself. I know too much about the world, and I know too much about the injustices, unfairness and inequalities within our society. I feel that I have to react to those injustices. I am an activist academic.

The protest at the Jack the Ripper museum has dragged me – very easily – away from my summer writing.

The museum is on the same Cable Street where the East End community refused to allow Oswald Mosley and his fascist Blackshirt army to march in 1936. At the time, it was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood.

The area has a very important and proud working-class history of fighting off the fascists and representing the diversity of London. The museum is in a place that symbolises a time in our history when the local community, along with political anarchists and communists, stood side by side against fascism and the police who were there to protect the march.

As a working-class academic and ethnographer, I never tire of hearing and reading about this piece of history.

The planning application for the Ripper museum, submitted in 2014, said that it would be the first in Britain to celebrate women’s achievements. The local people were supportive – they thought that the museum would perhaps tell the history and stories of the local Match Girls Union; the suffragettes; the Bengali women who fought racism in 1970s Brick Lane.

Instead, what is to be opened on 12 Cable Street is a museum that will sell T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring a black silhouette of the Ripper stood in a pool of blood, reducing the women of the East End to a red smudge.

This was all I needed to distract me from a summer of academic writing that will hopefully secure me a job in 2016, when my contract at the London School of Economics runs out.

Perhaps a good, strategic academic would stick to this “REF-able” task. Instead, I find myself blogging for Times Higher Education to explain why this week I have been organising a protest outside 12 Cable Street.

My current research examines what is happening to working-class families in this part of London, and my protest excursion will form part of this. It speaks to how working-class cultural and historical legacies are appropriated and sold, gentrified and misrepresented, with little thought for the consequences for or the feelings of anyone in the community.

I hope that my ethnography and the research that I produce will help to facilitate a fightback.

I get out on the streets. I march, I protest and I argue against the inequality that I discover through my research. This activism gives me the tools to critique, a voice to be heard and the knowledge to educate, and it is as much a part of my role as an academic as any REF-able writing.

Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow in the department of sociology at the London School of Economics.

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