BC’s new museum project has an $800 million price tag. why?


Critics are asking why is it so expensive, and how many schools and hospitals could be seismically upgraded instead?

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VICTORIA — With its controversial price tag of $789 million, the New Democrats’ plan to tear down and rebuild the Royal BC Museum could be the most expensive museum project in Canadian history.

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In the absence of any concrete design to justify the cost, it has critics asking why it is so expensive, and how many schools and hospitals could be seismically upgraded instead?

In justifying the timing for last week’s announcement that the 54-year-old museum in Victoria will be shuttered on Sept. 6, torn down and rebuilt by 2030, Premier John Horgan said the building is seismically unsafe and has been ignored by previous governments for decades.

However, there are 250 BC schools awaiting seismic upgrades and the 125-year-old Legislature itself is at risk of crumbling in a major earthquake.

BC Liberal jobs critic Todd Stone said it’s “outrageous” that the government is prioritizing a new museum for capital spending when upgrading schools and hospitals and rebuilding the fire ravaged village of Lytton should be at the top of the list.

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“Part of the reason that British Columbians are as angry as they are about this $1 billion vanity museum project, which the premier has announced for his backyard, is because there are so many other worthy projects that $1 billion could be used for and people are relating this to the challenges in their own lives,” Stone told reporters Wednesday. “So for example, the government could seismically upgrade pretty much 100 schools across the province for a billion dollars.”

People walk up stairs to the entrance of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, on Thursday, December 21, 2017.
People walk up stairs to the entrance of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, on Thursday, December 21, 2017. Photo by CHAD HIPOLITO /THE CANADIAN PRESS

In the midst of a crumbling health-care system and a shortage of nurses and family doctors, Stone pointed out the government has yet to announce funding for BC’s second medical school at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus. The New Democrats promised in the 2020 election campaign to build the new medical school but haven’t included money in the last two budgets.

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Tim Willis, former executive vice-president of the Royal BC Museum, said he was gobsmacked at last week’s “bombshell” announcement by Horgan. He was shocked at the price tag and the decision to close the museum for eight years, and said it would leave “a gaping hole” in the tourism center of Victoria.

“So two years from now, when a new government is elected, possibly, or when inflation of building materials is even higher than it is at the moment, and the project stops or is stalled, what’s the fallback? There is no fallback,” Willis said. “And so my nightmare is that it — if it happens at all — it takes longer than eight years. A whole generation of British Columbia children will never get to visit their provincial museum, and Victoria is sitting with a gaping hole in its downtown tourism core.”

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Willis, who was the museum’s head of exhibitions and visitor engagement from 2006 to 2012, said the museum’s $789 million price tag — which could balloon even higher once shovels hit the ground — will make it the most expensive museum capital project in the country including national museums in Ottawa.

Willis was the former head of exhibitions at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. That stop-and-start project — envisioned first as a renovation that turned so disastrous that it sparked a sudden announcement by the Alberta government that a new museum would be built in Downtown Edmonton — took 15 years and cost $375 million.

The Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg opened in 2014 after five years of construction and at a cost of $351 million. The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, which opened in 2005, cost $135 million.

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BC Premier John Horgan, Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Melanie Mark and RBCM board member Carole James look at a racoon display on the way to a funding announcement for a new Royal BC Museum Victoria, BC May 13, 2022.
BC Premier John Horgan, Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Melanie Mark and RBCM board member Carole James look at a racoon display on the way to a funding announcement for a new Royal BC Museum Victoria, BC May 13, 2022. Photo by DARREN STONE /TIMES COLONIST

The government hasn’t yet released a business case to explain how they arrived at the $789 million figure. Tourism Minister Melanie Mark promised the business case will be released but it’s likely that document will be heavily redacted.

“I don’t know of another project where the announcement of the closure of the museum is made without some announcement of the vision for the new building,” Willis said. “It’s almost as though a giant birthday present was given to the people of the province without any sense of what’s inside the package.”

The total $1 billion price tag includes $789 million for the new museum, plus $224 million already announced for the museum’s new archives and collection building in Colwood, outside of Victoria.

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Mark said the government has a preliminary design for a mass timber structure but public input will determine the final design.

“What I can tell you is the business case is an extensive process,” Mark said Wednesday. “Now that this is public, we can go out with the procurement and the architects are going to get hired and they’re going to start showing the public what does the design build look like.”

During Finance Ministry estimates Tuesday afternoon, BC Liberal finance critic Peter Milobar tried to not avail to get specifics from Finance Minister Selina Robinson about the square footage of the proposed museum. The project was approved by the Treasury Board, chaired by Robinson, in March. Neither Robinson nor Mark could give specifics on the square footage of the building.

“There are over six hectares of land across the street,” Mark told reporters Wednesday. “We are talking about six buildings, we’re talking about seven million artifacts and objects. We’re talking about our collective history. So this is a complex project.”

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