The subject of the Museum in Docklands' latest exhibition should require no introduction from Londonist. Since he first struck in 1888, Jack the Ripper entered into London folklore as much as Dick Whittington, Pearly Kings and Queens or the 'Don't be a sinner, be a winner' bloke on Oxford St.
What this impressively serious exhibition does, however, is remind visitors that underneath all of the London Dungeon gore, Jack-the-Ripper tours and bad-taste T-shirts, lies a tragic story set against a tragic backdrop.
The first half of the exhibition sets the scene for the murders – looking at the grim reality of life in the East End in 1888. Sweatshops, alcoholism, prostitution and grinding poverty meant that Jack the Ripper was quite low down the list of causes of death for your average Eastender at the time.
The second half of the exhibition looks at the murders themselves from the point of view of the hapless police and the increasingly hysterical media. It is perhaps this angle that is the most interesting aspect of the exhibition. As you browse the sheer number of column inches, wildly speculative opinion pieces and gory etched illustrations, one can't help but draw comparison with recent media crime frenzies such at the Madeleine McCann case or the Ipswich murders.
Interesting conclusions are also drawn about the contemporary interest in crime and the the occult – witness Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, both of which appeared around the time of the murders – and the public hysteria that was whipped up. There were even suggestions that some of the gory literature of the day had influenced the killer – proving that the 'video games make kids violent' argument has been raging since long before GTA appeared on the scene.
Perhaps the most moving exhibits are a screened-off series of tiny photographs taken of the victims lying in the mortuary. These haunting images of the dead are a reminder that behind the press cuttings there were real, downtrodden, undernourished women who had fallen through the cracks in society.
It's good to see the Jack the Ripper murders put in context rather than being treated as theme-park attractions, and while the tour of the 19th century East End is brief and perhaps not as in-depth as it could have been, this exhibition gives a fascinating insight into how far the East End has come in the last hundred years – and also how little the media has changed in that time.
Words & image by Matt Crossick
Jack the Ripper and the East End (£7, £5 concs.) is showing until November 2 at the Museum in Docklands. For more information on the exhibition visit their website here.