Reduced to a red smudge—How many East End residents (and beyond) feel women have been portrayed after truth came to light about a local museum’s spotlight on memorial turned macabre.
Shock ensued when the renovated museum space opened its Cable Street doors in July, only to reveal a complete turn of conceptual events. The once-promised “first women’s history museum in the UK” was instead dedicated to one of London’s most infamous figures—Jack the Ripper.
Billed as telling the unknown serial killer’s story “from the perspective of six of the women who were his victims,” the museum’s premise was completely redeveloped without notifying anyone.
Interestingly enough, it’s the brainchild of Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, former chief of diversity and inclusion at Google for the UK, Middle East and Africa. With experience in such fields, curating the original women’s history topic was an easily believable proposition. Amidst fallout from the debut, however, he and his PR team have made some deeply tarnishing and undoubtedly questionable communication steps along the way.
Palmer-Edgecumbe defends they planned to do a women’s history-themed museum but decided showcasing the perspectives of Jack the Ripper’s victims “would be a more interesting angle.”
Vouching it’s dedicated to the victims’ lives more so than Jack’s, he maintains the museum’s logo, which features a shadowy Victorian man, in fact includes the women—as blood smeared across the ground. At one point prior to opening, Palmer-Edgecumbe additionally said the gallery’s full name was “Jack and Ripper and the History of Women in East London,” with the signage just not yet finished.
PR executive/spokesman for the museum Joshua Walker said they merely “changed its primary focus” to garner mass appeal but haven’t deviated from its original mission.
Feeling “hoodwinked” and betrayed, protesters quickly mounted once the museum opened. They were outraged the alleged “world class” honoring of East End women and social reformation for which they fought was completely abandoned. Some believe the exhibit additionally glamorizes sexual violence against women, but public rage inevitably sprouts from the underlying disregard for the area’s overall historical value.
Given today’s increasingly interconnected world, similarly minded backlash additionally spread across social media; however, Walker recently generated hot water of his own via Twitter.
As exchanges erupted, online audiences took several of his comments in response to opinions that the museum glamorizes sexual violence as defending Jack the Ripper’s crimes.
Walker asserts he only meant it wasn’t fair to deem the late-19th century events as “sexual violence,” since the facts have never been confirmed. Not intending to “defend Jack the Ripper’s reputation,” he invites everyone to come see the museum and draw their own conclusions.
Though it doesn’t stop there, he is the Twitter gift that keeps on giving.
For every response, Tweeters would further attack. It seems Walker quickly crossed the line from simply carrying out his communicative duty to remedy the growing crisis, into non-constructive sparring that kept digging a deeper hole.
While an advantage to social media is allowing instantaneous public feedback, the disadvantage is users expecting an instantaneous response. Seizing the opportunity to directly connect with audiences via online platforms can be powerful, but depending on the professional, messages aren’t always as carefully crafted as when disseminated though traditional PR avenues.
Another tweet he has since deleted read: “Telling a story from the perspective of women – it’s a tough job but someone has to do it.”
Topping the list of new media lessons: Nothing on the Internet ever truly goes away. Walker’s ineloquent back peddling and trace-covering attempts proved utterly futile.
Anarchist protesters are also targeting the museum as part of their ongoing demonstrative campaign to end “The War on Women.” With plans to pounce this Sunday, October 4, anti-capitalist group Class War fiercely sees the exhibition as glorifying sexual violence.
Despite being roped back into negative headlines, the museum isn’t letting a good crisis go to waste. Walker announced his “disappointment” about the attack, wishing the two could instead work together and jointly advocate for the cause.
While adjusting plans isn’t inherently evil, a prevailing sense of outright deception remains heart of the problematic matter.
In addition to East End residents, the locally governing Tower Hamlets Council was thoroughly misled as well. The location’s “change of use” application submitted in July of 2014 was filled with photos and praise exclusively focused on women’s history. With anticipated educational, economic and meaningful values also touted, no indication of the project’s thematic plot twist was ever provided.
Head designer and architect Andrew Waugh says he was “duped” from the museum’s start as well. Approached with the meaningful idea despite a supposed lack of money, Waugh chose to green light the work at a significantly cheaper price because it seemed like a great community contribution. He calls the finished product “salacious, misogynist rubbish,” assuring he “wouldn’t have gotten near the project” had its true intent been known.
A crash course in everything not do regarding crisis communications, Palmer-Edgecumbe, Walker and all else surrounding the Jack the Ripper museum exemplify the importance of acting with integrity.
When you deceive, you despair. Public relations is about just that—relating to your publics. Building quality relationships requires giving respect to the people and promises of which you serve.
Whether residents, online critics, local authority or business partners, audiences don’t appreciate outright dishonesty, much less shallow attempts to counteract and/or defend it.
Hopefully the team can learn from their mistakes, but for now it’s more like Jack the PR Rip-off.