Jack the Ripper Museum – RIP?

I have tragic news for you all – 5 years after opening, London’s Jack The Ripper Museum has declared insolvency – so what happens now?

The museum that opened in 2015 to a cacophony of protests, petitions and national outrage has run out of money. News of the insolvency spread like wild fire online (although thanks to Dr Louise Raw discovering this fact, not because the museum itself announced it.) And understandably, thinking the museum was out of money and, again, with no word from The Jack the Ripper Museum, people assumed it was about to shut its doors.

Apparently not – a spokesperson for the museum told me:

‘I am confirming we are not closed; we have closed for a few days due to Covid 19 and lack of tourists in London.  You can check our website for updates and there is a notice in our window.’

I did ask for a statement regarding the insolvency and financial future of the museum, none has been given at the time of writing. So according to the museum, they are not closed (admitedly, they didn’t say they wouldnt be permantly closing, despite being asked…but benefit of the doubt). Which is good news for the museum’s staff, because hey, during covid the museum sector has already seen far to many redunacies. BUT that being said, it’s not all good news, because having declared themselves insolvent, The Jack the Ripper Museum is on pretty shaky ground.

So, what went wrong and can the museum ever be turned around? Let’s look at the issues:

Issue one – Lack of Trust

It would not be unfair to say that The Jack the Ripper Museum was founded on lies. The community who live around the museum were told that it was going to be a women’s history museum. It wasn’t until the signage came up that anyone knew otherwise.

And it wasn’t just the local community. The museums architect, Andrew Waugh, publicly came out and said he was ‘duped’ into working on the museum, after being told it was a women’s history museum. Saying:

“The local community was duped, we were duped. They came to us and said they had no money but that this is a real heartfelt project. It is incredibly important to celebrate women in politics in the East End. We really ran with it. We did it at a bargain-basement fee, at cost price because we thought it was a great thing to do.”

To make amends, the museum announced that they would be partnering with a women’s domestic violence charity – which again, turned out to be wholly untrue. The charity had never been contacted by the museum and later asked to be taken off their website.

Then came the museums claim that the name of the museum was never actually, The Jack the Ripper Museum. In a 2015 interview with The Londonist, museum founder, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe explained:

The full name of the museum is ‘The Jack the Ripper and the History of Women in East London’. The frontage is not finished and still in the planning stage.’

Yet the name remains the same, as did the frontage until the local community demanded it was taken down in 2017.

Issue Two – No comment

In light of all of this, The Jack the Ripper Museum choosing to disengage from social media and press seemed understandable, if a little petulant. Faced with this utter shit storm immediately upon opening, museum management could either apologise, shutter and makes amends, or just dig their heels in and weather it out. And of course, they chose the latter option.

But the issue here is that this phase of battening down the hatches has never stopped. The museum regularly either refuse or ignore requests for statements (even getting that tiny quote at the top of this article was like pulling teeth). And of course, they have set an unparalleled precedent for social media account blocking. Whenever there is even a hint of online criticism or discontent, that block button is quickly pressed.

Having worked in museum communications I can tell you that I’ve never seen a museum do this before. And that’s not because The Jack the Ripper Museum are ground-breaking communication mavericks. No – it’s because this strategy of refusing to engage and burying their heads in the sand is, frankly, insane.

For one thing by doing this the museum alienate themselves from journalists, the history community and you know, general visitors. Which has massively reduced the amount of press and social engagement they are able to generate after that initial wave of negative publicity when they opened. When was the last time you saw them in a museum Twitter chat or an article on them that wasn’t wholly negative and from 2015-2017?

But arguably the biggest example of why this communications strategy is so catastrophically bad is that when the internet found out The Jack the Ripper Museum had declared insolvency and could be shuttering its doors – the museum seemed to have had no idea. When I asked them about this claims, they said they had never seen or heard anything about them. If true, that’s almost certainly because they’d blocked everyone who was sharing the news from their social media (with the vast majority of these people being female historians)

This meant that for several days The Jack the Ripper Museum management were seemingly totally unaware that news that their museum was closing was being spread around social media. And to really emphasis what a monumental clusterfuck that is, let us remember this: the news of the museums insolvency and probable closure was readily accepted – without a statement from the museum needed. That’s a pretty damning indictment of how The Jack the Ripper Museum chooses to engage with the public,

Issue Three – the actual experience

Ok, lets hit pause on talking about the topics and contents inside the museum (don’t worry I’ll get to that momentarily). What about the actual visitor experience? Is it any good?

Well for £10 general admission (£8 for kids) you get access to the small museum, which lies over six floors with roughly one room per floor. These rooms are a mix of walk-in scenes with little to no interpretation (for example the ‘Mitre Square murder scene’) and walk in scenes with light interpretation (e.g the ‘morgue’ and ‘one of the Ripper victims rooms’)

It’s clearly designed to be immersive, as you flit from streets to ‘Jack’s living room’, with each room having its own soundscape, which runs the gamut from a women’s screams and cries of ‘murder!’, to light folky singing. Effort has been made; there just seemingly wasn’t the budget for it to be well executed. Many areas are very sparsely dressed and most of the rooms are inhabited with some kind of dodgy waxwork with an equally dodgy wig.

The Mitre Square ‘scene’

Then there’s the total lack of quality historic content. It’s all very vague; ‘here’s a Victorian bonnet, maybe a victim wore one like it.’ With short and non-descript panels on the walls and staircases to provide light information. It all feels very last minute presentation and you can see why some visitors have compared it to a live version of the Jack the Ripper Wikipedia page.

On the whole, you can see the entire museum in an hour, but when I’ve visited I’ve seen people in and out within ten minutes – shuffle around, take a selfie with a murdered woman’s waxwork and you’re done. There’s no revisit value. Even the most hardened Ripperologist would struggle on finding a reason to return. Once you’ve gotten past the end of the pier house of horrors ‘I can’t believe this exists’ cheap thrill – there is nothing there.

And that can in no small way have contributed to The Jack the Ripper Museums money troubles. After all, no small museum can finically survive on a diet that consists solely of one off ‘well I was going to the Tower of London, might as well pop in’ visits.

Issue four – It shouldn’t exist

At least not like this. Of course, there’s the argument that a museum that claimed to be a women’s history museum and then turned out to be a Jack the Ripper museum shouldn’t exist in the first place. But it does. And (at least according to their management) it will continue to exist.

But it shouldn’t as it is now. Way back in 2015 we were living in a world that was pre-Hallie Rubenhold’s, The Five. When people could say to The Jack the Ripper Museum, please don’t just shove up pictures of the victims dead bodies in a make shift morgue and say that’s their whole story. And they could shrug, because it would be hard to find out more information on every victim and they were such a small team that they just didn’t have capacity…

Well, welcome to 2020, when Hallie Rubenhold has published a bestselling book on the lives of each victim. It’s been out for a year, proving that:

  1. Yes, the information does exist and you have easy access to it
  2. People are clearly interested in knowing more about these women and their lives.

So now is the time to change The Jack the Ripper Museum. Take down the morgue, the murder scene and ‘Jack’s sitting room’ and replace it with new content that has substance, isn’t wholly degrading and might just draw people into your museum.

Because, let’s be real here Jack the Ripper Museum – after your insolvency and the last five years of hate being blasted your way – what do you have to lose? Clearly, you can’t go on like you currently are. Something has to change for you to survive. So maybe that something doesn’t have to be sticking in another mutilated waxwork.

Maybe it could be having several rooms dedicated to telling the lives of the five known victims. Maybe you could have more space explaining what life was like in the East End at that time. How 1 in 5 women were sex workers. How the 1885 Law Amendment closed brothels and put many of these women in danger. How in fact there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of those five victims were sex workers, but what would it matter if they were?

We will never know who Jack the Ripper was, but we should use that mystery to uncover a troubling but fascinating past. And yes, that will still be interesting, there’s now hard data to show people are interested. Yes, you can still have selfie moments in foggy London streets and things for people to play with (e.g try out a penny bed!). You just don’t need to capitalise on the violent deaths of women to make money.

Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly

The Jack the Ripper Museum is never going to be the museum we were promised and wanted it to be (luckily, The East End Women’s museum is opening soon, so we now have that space) However, if The Jack The Ripper Museum really is going to stay open, that it doesn’t just need to change – it has to.

How to get that museum job (despite the world being on fire)

A beginners guide for finding that first job in museum and heritage in a Covid world.

So right now the world is, how shall I put this nicely – a fucking garbage fire of despair and uncertainty. And if you’ve just graduated and/or are looking for a new career in museums and heritage – mate, I’m so sorry. After all, this was already a tough sector to get a foot hold in and Covid has not helped that.

I’m not going to sugar coat it, the reality is this; pretty much every museum and heritage organisation is making changes to their staffing. Redundancies, hire freezes, pay cuts. The whole shebang. This includes small museums, medium ones and many of the major players. And yes, for the most part the directors of those big players will be retaining their same three figure salaries, thank you very much. However, in the immortal words of Whitney Houston, ‘it’s not right (in fact it’s utter bullshit). But it’s okay. I’m gonna make it anyway.’

Okay I may have paraphrased a tiny bit there. But the point stands, you’re dreams of working in history and heritage are not over. And to help you get to that dream, I’ve made this little guide to help you.

So, first things first, on a scale of 1-10 how fucked are you?

Surprisingly, not as fucked as you might think (hooray!) Though there are redundancies, there are still jobs. Which is fantastic news! BUT (and it’s a big but) it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I spoke to Fair Museum Jobs for their thoughts and they came back with two major things you need to keep in mind when looking at museum and heritage jobs in this Covid landscape:

1.Prepare for competition. 

As Fair Museum Jobs told me ‘We’ve seen some buoyancy in the job market already, but it does mean application processes are going to be competitive.’

Shit is about to get fierce. You’re not just going to be going against other graduates or career transfers for those entry level jobs, but people who already work in the sector and have been made redundant. So, polish that CV and for the love of god, don’t knock yourself out in the first round by doing a copy paste CV and cover letter for every application. You’re going up against dozens if not hundreds of people – tailor it!

2.The sector will try and take advantage of you. 

Fair Museum jobs underlines that museums are likely to take use this staturated job market to save some coin, ‘We worry that organisations will use their financial situation as a reason to make roles voluntary, when really they are roles that merit paid staff.’

This will affect all types of roles, but chances are the roles that are inevitably going to be hit hardest by this lack of pay are in curatorial. This is because historically they always have been. Now employers can’t make a person redundant and then immediately rehire someone to do the same job (just at a lesser salary). Which is why we’re expecting to see museums get around this by making lower level and entry level positions redundant and then magically creating a ‘voluntary’ role which covers the same tasks, but has a slightly different name.

Go into this with your eyes wide open. Look out for jobs that are taking advantage of you and also make sure you remember how fierce your competition is and tailor you application for everything you go for (it’s a ball ache and takes time, but it’s worth it)

So with that all said…lets actually get on to how you can get a foot in the door when your dream job isn’t available (becuase be real, it probably isn’t right now)

Option 1 – volunteering

What a surprise! As we’ve just covered, these are going to be the most popular types of ‘job’ advertised. Now as an entry point, this is very elite. You really can only do this one if you can afford to. If you can’t afford to, then don’t worry. Skip this whole section, because there’s stuff for you later.

But if you are going to apply for a voluntary role, then it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

  • This will still be a full time or part time job. You just won’t get paid for it. So don’t expect people to be flexible with your hours.
  • You’ll almost certainly still have to interview for the role and have things like a relevant degree, MA and occasionally (kind of hilariously given the role) previous voluntary experience.

And know that there is no guaranteed job at the end of this. Of course some people have gotten a paid gig off the back of volunteering, but it’s far from guaranteed. The odds are not ever in your favour on this one. And athough how good you are does factor in to turning volunteering into paid work, it’s almost all down to luck. It’s basically the Hunger Games and chances are you’re not Katniss Everdeen.

However, if you do still want to apply and see this as your only option, then do. Just know your rights going into it. Make sure you have your hours set in stone and don’t work for free longer than you have to.

Option 2 – other avenues in

So, you can’t afford to work for free. Don’t worry, most people can’t. But you can still apply for jobs. There are jobs going in every area of museums and heritage, just much much fewer than normal.

One thing to consider is if there are jobs in other departments in the museum/heritage organisations you’re looking at. Retail, front of house and marketing are far more likely to be looking than curatorial, education, conservation etc. So this is a good time to work out if you want to be a conservator or a curator, or if you just want to work in museums and heritage. There’s no shame if it’s the latter. That’s why most people get into the sector, to be surrounded by amazing history every day.

So, if you think you might fall into the ‘I just love museums and want that to be my job’ category, then apply to other departments. Having worked across the board in museums and heritage, I can tell you that you still get that amazing experience. Also some of those departments are actually better paid (and you get more transferable skills, should you ever want to leave the sector one day!)

And if you do feel like it’s ‘curator or death!’ then other avenues in are still worth considering. I know many curators, conservators and historians who got their start in a museum shop, as a guide or greeter. It’s a foot in the door. A way to pay your rent, get to know what visitors want and become one of the team. Plus, it never hurts to be an internal applicant.

Option 3 -the waiting game

This is probably the option you don’t want to hear about. But honestly, it’s not that bad and I say that having done it myself. Sometimes no matter how many applications you send in, that entry level job doesn’t happen. It’s not anything on you, it’s just a limited number of jobs and a crazy number of applicants.

I’ve been there. I landed my first job as a paid intern and then after my contract ran out there was nadda. I went for jobs and didn’t get them and it was a couple of months until I landed my next role in the sector. During that time I didn’t have the option of sitting on my hands; after all my landlord still wanted rent and I was very much team I’d like to have enough money to eat please.

So I worked in a shop and then as an admin assistant in an office. I’ve also been a call centre worker (selling double glazing natch), a children’s party host and (arguably) the worlds perkiest leafleteer. None of those things were what I wanted to do, but it got me by until I could do what I wanted.

Between you and me, I actually count those times as some of the most valuable in my career. I got my word per minute speed up, became a boss at spreadsheets and learnt to manage difficult customers (seriously, working in a call centre makes you a boss at dealing with tricky people) It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s the stuff that meant when I was in an interview and they asked me ‘how would you organise X’ or ‘how would you manage this tricky interpersonal situation’ I had some solid answers tucked up my sleeve. And now, having been on the other side of the desk during assistant interviews, I can tell you that not many candidates have those.

So don’t just apply for those history and heritage jobs, spread your net. And if you strike out and don’t land the dream job, it’s ok. The experiences you get in other jobs whilst you wait will still count.

So what happens now?

Well you apply. And apply and then apply again. And the probably apply some more. Chances are, this is going to take at least a couple of months. And whilst you wait, you can boost your CV, take online courses (there are a ton of free ones I’ll link at the bottom). Join the history and heritage community on social; it’s a great place to find opportunities, but also just to meet some amazing people.

And remember to know your rights. Check out the Museum’s Association pay salary guidelines. Flag up BS job specs to places like Fair Museum Jobs. Check out unions (seriously every museum worker should join a union!) and go to places like GlassDoor to find if the place you want to work at has any major red flags.

Most importantly, don’t give up. This might be a long road, but you will get there.

Handy free online course links:

Future Learn has a ton of amazing online courses you can do for free (their history ones are great) but they also have them in things like interpersonal office skills, safeguarding (handy if you plan to work in education in the future) and presenting your work.

Reed offers several free acredited courses in improving your IT skills and HR basics.

Open Universityhas a ton of free courses (including one on the value of coffee, which I actually now want to do…) stand outs for padding out your experience and CV include project planning, leadership skills and finance basics.

Check out Fair Museum Jobs full statement and advice

‘Given Covid, it’s inevitable that organisation are going to suffer financially. We have already seen that Tate and National Trust Scotland among others are consulting on staff redundancies. This is doesn’t mean there won’t be jobs being advertised, indeed we’ve seen some buoyancy in the job market already, but it does mean application processes are going to be competitive. Don’t let organisations get away with using Covid as an excuse to treat you badly: make sure to check the salary and working hours – can you reasonably live on this? Check the job requirements – are they proportionate to the person specification, and the salary? It’s also worth doing some research about the organisation – How have they treated their staff during covid? What are they doing in reaction to Black Lives Matter? Allow yourself to feel empowered to make ethical choices in your job applications.
We also worry that organisations will use their financial situation as a reason to make roles voluntary, when really they are roles that merit paid staff. At Fair Museum Jobs we would say, don’t apply for these jobs, and challenge them when you see them. It will never be acceptable for any organisation to use their financial situation to treat other people poorly, no matter their charitable status.’

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