Overlapping Times and Spaces: Ghosts and Modern Technology

Our trip down the back alleys of White Chapel in London’s East end following the trails of the gruesome murders by Jack the Ripper and our sojourn to the Roman baths in Bath provided intriguing views into the past thanks to modern technology.  The images provided through “Ripper Vision” and the projections and “soundscapes” of ancient Romans appearing next to visitors to the baths today worked to open windows into the past; windows that asked us to imagine a very different time in the same space.

The website for the “Jack the Ripper Tour” promises that “you will feel like you’ve been transported back to the mean streets of the Victorian East end” and states that out tour is “not just a ghost walk” but an experience that “utilizes the latest technology to bring the 19th century to life”.  Our tour guide set the context for the Ripper Tour as she asked us to “remove all thoughts of movies and what you think you see” as we look around us. She relied on a micro projector to share images of the original old photos of the buildings and back alleys in area in 1888.  This image is what drew me originally to this tour when we were planning our trip:



The tour was broken up by stops during which she flashed images on the ceilings or walls of old newspaper photos of the crime scenes and the victims.  Our views of the projections of the victims’ photographs brought their “ghosts” to join us in space.


Our guide engaged our imagination to envision the past.  We learned that this area was full of Irish and Jewish immigrants living in extreme poverty in 1888.  Fifty five percent of children died before the age of 5.  Thousands of people did not have a permanent roof over their heads, especially women who were forced into prostitution to “make ends meet” and earn the 4 pence they needed for a night’s shelter.  And it was these women that Jack the Ripper stalked and  brutally murdered.

It was sometimes difficult to “see” the past, though. There is considerable altering of the spaces here; our tour guide pointed out the new “ugly” buildings that had replaced the older, historical back alleys and buildings from Ripper’s time.  What this means for the tour is that it will become harder to use the projector to “envision” the past onto the present, if the historical space can no longer be found as it rests beneath a modern building.  There were several places in the tour where we had to really “imagine” a space that only five months ago had still been in place.  But I wasn’t sure that folks really cared too much about that on our tour.  I think many of our group were  more interested in the gruesome details and pictures of Jack’s victims.

Our “gaze” on the buildings and spaces of today and the projections of the past created by our guide truly masked an important dimension of our walk.    England and Wales combined has seen a population increases of 7.1 percent this year, the largest since 1801.  The area in which we walked today has seen a spike in hate crimes and in attacks in the streets on British Muslims.  The Guardian noted on June 7, 2017, that Muslim women and non-Muslim female activists had been kicked and punched by hate groups.  And on July 7, 2027, The Guardian reported that the police has recorded an increase of 10% in crime in this area and noted that violent crime has increased by 18%, and gun and knife crime was up by 20%.  Sexual offenses were up by 14,000 since the same time in 2016.  And according to Wikipedia, the Whitechapel Market and A11 corridor has received a 20 million pound investment to improve the public spaces along the very route we took as we followed Jack the Ripper in 1888.  This remains a contested space and time but the current dimension of this is reflected loss of the settings for the time of 1888 as London changes in response to today’s issues.

The present wasn’t completely masked, however.  It wasn’t discussed by our guide, but she began our tour in front of contemporary graffiti as she set the stage for our visit to the past.  I couldn’t help noticing the commentary on current events:


The Roman baths were an important stop on our exploration of time and space.  I had hoped this experience would reveal the past through carefully documented archaeology and well crafted labels.






But Monica and I were very disappointed as we met up inside.  The artifacts of the Roman occupation and the spaces we explored were very ambiguous in terms of time; there were no real dates or explanations of the different archaeological horizons we were viewing.  There were few labels and the ones that were there had no real information on them to help interpret what we saw.  The museum also relied heavily on technology to bring the past into the present:




The moving images and sounds of their passage that were projected onto the original walls of the bath existed side by side with the tourists moving through the space.  These “ghosts” were everywhere, but in the case of the baths, the physical space of Roman culture was revealed in a most confusing and disconnected time.  The projections of Roman citizens moving through this space helped to make our experience more “real” than the actual artifacts and excavations sites we viewed.  But of course, these figures were actors performing a script written by the curators of the museum today.

I was intrigued that this was also a “sacred” place in which weddings could occur:


But the “sacred” nature of museums is certainly discussed by scholars in museum studies and I will treat that topic again after our visit to the Natural History Museum.

In any event, our explorations of the area haunted by Jack the Ripper and our visit to Bath relied on modern technology to make the tour successful.  And the history of spaces in time for both tours was incomplete.  I was left with wanting to know more, though.  Sometimes it really doesn’t help to be a social scientist!




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