New Beginnings #2: A New Project and A New Experience: The East End Women’s Museum

Sylvia Pankhurst, 1909. Instrumental figure in the East End women’s suffrage movement. Attribution: Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia commons, 1909

Have you heard about the East End Women’s Museum? Perhaps you remember instead the opening of the tacky Jack the Ripper Museum in 2015, in place of the promised first Women Museum in the UK. Not only does the new museum disregard women’s lives, but it also displays gratuitous details of Jack the Ripper’s murders, including one victim’s bedroom and pictures of the bodies. However, this dreadful opening led to some good things: a collective opposition to the museum (from neighbours, East End women, feminists, and historians), as well as Sara Huws and Sarah Jackson’s wish to create the promised museum. Their idea is to offer the East End and London the museum that was originally proposed, with historical and social information about women’s lives in the East End. The project not only aims to be historical, but also links historical jobs or situations to the present, with contemporary testimonies. The form of the museum is not yet defined; it may be a physical building in the East End, or a virtual museum, such as the Women’s Museum of Ireland – or even both.

Even though this project has been made necessary by the opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum, it should not be defined by this unfortunate event. The original project for an East End women’s museum was to record and remember women’s lives in this specific area of London. Outside the walls of the city, it was the location where the first industries were developed: tanning, rope making, lead making, slaughter houses, fish farms and breweries, to name but a few. The East End has always accommodated a diverse and international community. Large numbers of Huguenot French weavers settled there during the seventeenth century, and during the nineteenth century, Eastern European Jews and radicals came to live in the area. Due to the increase in population and the poor housing conditions during the Victorian era, the East End developed a reputation for poverty, crime and violence, which culminated in Jack the Ripper’s murders. Eventually, the aim of the museum is to offer a vivid picture of women’s lives and their role in this evolving East End society.

New Beginnings and Old Habits

Sara Huws and Sarah Jackson received a lot of support from various people, including academics. Over the past months, they got organized, started to collect objects and stories, and collected a growing list of volunteers. A LAHP Doctoral Training Opportunity, ‘Setting out their Stall’, has subsequently been created to focus on women and markets in the East End. Led by Dr. Alana Harris and Dr. Andrew Flinn, this project has gathered a dozen students, including myself; we will receive training, researching and brainstorming suitable ways to display our findings in the museum. Given my background in eighteenth-century French studies, this is a big change and a challenge for me. Nevertheless, it is an experience that I am sure will be professionally, intellectually, and personally enriching.

Even though women’s studies have gained a wider following since the 1970s, very few museums are devoted to women’s history. As well as the East End Women’s Museum in the UK, another project is kicking off in the US, with a wider scale: the National Women’s History Museum Project. I believe it is necessary to have museums dedicated to every aspect of women’s history, as much as it is important to develop studies of children and masculinities. At a time when women’s rights are undermined and challenged by political establishments; when issues of sexual assault and misogyny are real problems in governmental practice; and when education systems are severely lacking in their ability – or even interest – to teach women’s history, it is necessary to investigate, collect, and share information through projects such as the East End Women’s Museum.

Anaïs Pédron is in the third year of a PhD in the department of History at QMUL. Her thesis focuses on women of theatre (actresses and managers) who became writers, and to which extent they wrote about human rights in eighteenth-century Paris.

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