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Monday, 18 March 2013

Guerilla Heritage Activist Takes on the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum

I am currently working on a PhD about servants, domestic labour, and household management in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Sounds like a laugh a minute, I know, but it is actually quite interesting. That said, some days it gets really dull, and the call of procrastination becomes far too much. This little heritage crusade started out as kind-of work, but then it just got me furious. 

Wikipedia (god bless it) has got a fantastic list of London Museums. This is very useful to me - it provides a one-stop shop for all the info I need on museums in London that might hold collections that will be useful to me - coming from a professional background in museums, I think it's important for academics to remember that as wonderful as they are, the National Archives are not the be all and end all of research (but that is a bitchfest for another day). Anyhoo - as I was working my way through the list, I found something that made my blood boil instantaneously. Ripley's Believe it or Not! was on this list. Now, I am a lover of all museums - big, small, obvious or obscure. The weirder the better, frankly. But there is no way that Ripley's is a museum. No. Fucking. Way. 

There are certain things about Ripley's that might make you *think* that it is a museum. For example, it says it's a museum on their front door:

Also, it has a collection. Sure, some of the things are genuine - London's branch has a lot of Marylin Monroe Paraphernalia, for example. Why, god knows, but it does. However, a few of the other items in the collection - a life-sized model of the world's tallest ever man, Robert Wadlow, for example (as far as I can tell, there is one of these models in every Ripley's in the world) are less easy to understand. Mr Wadlow's London model is dressed up in a Santa onesie at Christmas, by the way - in a similarly dignified manner, the model of the shortest man who ever lived is kept in a cage. Along with such gems as the Blue-faced Man, a mirror maze, a bust of a man gurning (or 'eating his own face'), a stuffed 'Siamese' cow with legs randomly jutting out from its pitiful frame, and REAL SHRUNKEN HUMAN HEADS , I can't help but feel Robert Wadlow is spending his afterlife as the star attraction in a wholesale reproduction freak show. 

When Ripley's opened in London, it was marketed as an "Odditorium". I could live with that. You would never catch me dead in there, but I could live with it - its a nonsense word for a nonsense attraction. . Now, though, they are masquerading as a museum, and trading off the reputation of what I believe is the best museum city in the whole wide world. Every time I walk past Ripley's on Leicester Square, I look at  the sign above the door and I scowl my most evil of scowls, and stomp past the endless queues of foreign teenagers who are willing to pay between £20 and £30 a head to get inside this McDonalds-like carbon copy. "Why aren't you at the Science Museum?!" I want to scream at them, "Why not the countless small museums that celebrate the history of a world city from primordial ooze to the internet age?! Jesus Christ, it's cheaper to get into the Tower of London, for God's sake!!!"

But every time I walk on by. There is precious little I can do to remove the word from the building, except fume silently and wish a plague on all their houses (30+ around the world, FYI - even the V&A doesn't have that many franchises). But I am used to this rampant injustice. Years of temporary contracts, unpaid overtime, and barely making minimum wage in a job that listed a Masters degree as an essential requirement have steeled my nerves to the frustrations of the heritage world. Often in museums, unbridled rage has no outlet. You just have to go for a walk, chill your boots, and then return  in a mood of quiet despair. Not this time Ripleys, you total bastard charlatan. 

Wikipedia, as we all know, is editable by anyone. So I edited it. I found the script that referred to Ripley's, and with a decisive bash of the delete key, I scrubbed it from the landscape of London heritage. I triumphantly typed my explanation to the great god Wikipedians, and that was it - Ripley's is no longer, at least according to the internet, a museum. Almost two weeks later, it remains gone. 

Next time you feel the urge to go to a London Museum, go to the Wikipedia list. Check it out. Pick something fun safe in the knowledge that lying bastard tourist attractions are not welcome anymore. I still think the Art Museums need to have their own list (I hate art) and the Twinings Museum is hanging by a thread, frankly (its a shop with some knickknacks), but by and large, the List of London Museums is now legit.

Laura is a PhD student who studies domestic labour and campaigns for the appropriate use of the word 'museum' everywhere. She can be found ranting on twitter @tweetingbogart


  1. Maybe you should tackle this site next...

  2. How exuberantly snobby and boorish of you Mr. Elitist Doctoral Student of the (cough) Victorian Age. Perhaps you may find the time to define for us ignorant folk what true libraries and archives are as well.

  3. Boorish- the characteristics of a boor?? I don't think the Author who is a SHE (LAURA) was intending to write a Boor like article. Which for me was quite the opposite of boring ( which is what I think you meant) and was interesting and made me laugh.
    If you enjoy paying 30 quid a pop for an attraction then be my quest so for you "ignorant folk"..... MUSEUMS ARE FREE (most) ssshhh.

    P.S. Please don't tell anyone about the free part we might find our elitist, Victorian loving clique ruined by the mere common folk.

  4. Oh my GOD, have I got my own TROLL?!

    Excuse me - I have to go call my mother. She's going to be STOKED.