Women's History

Making a home for women’s history in London’s East End

When the hoardings came down on what was apparently a women’s history museum on Cable Street, London last summer, they revealed a faux Victorian shop front, decked out in black and red and featuring an image of a man in a top hat standing in a pool of blood.

The much-anticipated celebration of women’s history in East London turned out in fact to be an excuse to cash in on the popularity of misogynist serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The owners seemed to think that the local community might not notice the change, or perhaps hoped that they might not care. Happily they were dead wrong, as the string of protests and ensuing media storm showed.

Looking for a positive, creative way to protest, public historian Sara Huws and I decided to make the missing women’s history museum a reality. With a group of wonderful volunteers we are now working towards creating a real East End Women’s Museum.

Sadly, crass Ripper tourism is nothing new in East London, but the new museum on Cable Street represents a huge missed opportunity. East London has incredibly rich social, political, and cultural histories and although their voices are seldom heard, women were and are part of all of it.

Our aim for the East End Women’s Museum is to create connections between past and present by centering women in the stories of East London’s history, not only for major historic events, but in the experience of daily life. In particular we want to share the voices of women whose stories have been further pushed to the margins, including women who are black, Asian, lgbt*, or working class, as well as those who are older, who have disabilities, are from a migrant or an itinerant community, or working in the sex industry.

This is important for us politically as feminists, but also as a way to connect the stories from east London’s past to its present. So often people visiting museums and galleries confront an endless parade of rich, white, male, middle-aged faces: pompous portraits and statues of colonialists, politicians, missionaries, military leaders, and capitalists. The disproportionate representation of this homogenous elite can be profoundly alienating for many museum goers.

A wartime canteen run by the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, 1915.
A wartime canteen run by the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, 1915. (Photo: Norah Smyth / IISH by permission of Norah Smyth’s estate )

When that alienation takes place at a local level it can be very damaging. Many of us first become interested in history when we encounter the stories on our doorstep, of our communities and families. Knowing something about our area’s past as well as its present helps us feel at home, connected to the place and the people there. It can contribute to our own sense of identity.

But when faced with a statue at your local museum which commemorates the man who built the workhouse or who owned the factory that your great grandmother toiled in, perhaps paid for from the proceeds of slavery, it may be difficult to feel any connection to your area’s history, let alone civic pride. The message is that it’s not your history, it’s his.

For me, the obsession with Jack the Ripper creates this kind of alienating effect. It’s undeniable that the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 are of enormous significance to east London history, and women’s history. But fully aside from how that story is told, its dominance works to make the defining narrative of my east London home one of violent subjugation of women and failed justice.

Given that violence against women – especially women sex workers, who are 18 times more likely to be murdered than another member of the population – hasn’t gone the way of gaslights and top hats, perhaps the disproportionate focus on ‘Jack’ could be made to serve some social purpose. But that is not the way that his story is told.

The aim of our museum is to present an alternative, to amplify some of the stories you haven’t heard before, to show how and where more might be found, and to give a wider range of people the skills and the confidence to record their own histories. We know that many museums have had slender resources and little support to diversify their collections – especially since the curatorial enquiries of the past inform how collections are identified, recorded and interpreted today. However, there are some fantastic projects underway right now to address this imbalance. Over the last few months we have been involved in some great community history projects with Eastside Community Heritage, St George’s-in-the-East, Share UK and others.

We believe deeply that history belongs to everyone, and we want our visitors – especially women and girls – to feel that it is theirs too. That’s why we aim to co-create the content of the museum with groups from across east London, and to make it as accessible as possible, collecting and sharing stories in public spaces – parks, streets, schools, pubs, places of worship. It’s likely that the East End Women’s Museum will be a mobile museum that can be installed or hosted in a variety of locations rather than a traditional static museum building. We’re also keen to explore the possibilities offered by linked open data from digitized collections and online catalogues to bring more women’s voices and experiences onto the web.

As the project develops we will need to draw on ideas, skills, knowledge and resources from across east London and beyond to make all this happen. If you would like to be part of the making the East End Women’s Museum a reality, please join our email list for updates. With your help we can build a home for women’s history in the East End.

‘We’re Not Finished!’: an exhibition about women’s activism in East London created by Eastside Community Heritage in partnership with the East End Women’s Museum will be on display at Whitechapel Idea Store from 21 March until 21 April. 

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