Future of Royal BC Museum unclear after Horgan climbdown on new building

Options include a network of small museums across BC instead of a central institution

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Tourists from Texas and Idaho, and school kids from across BC, ambled through the Royal BC Museum’s natural history gallery on Thursday, snapping photos in front of the woolly mammoth.

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At just $5, admission is about the same price as a latte in the adjacent coffee shop.

The cashier explained the discounted price was owing to the empty third floor which once housed the Old Town exhibit and First Peoples galleries but was stripped in January in a “decolonization” effort.

The future of the half-empty museum is still unclear a day after Premier John Horgan announced the province is abandoning its much-maligned $789-million plan to close, tear down and rebuild the museum by 2030.

Horgan’s about face on what the Opposition labeled his “vanity museum project” raises questions about how the 54-year-old institution will rebound after being labeled seismically unsafe and riddled with asbestos.

One possibility is scrapping the model of a single provincial museum in Victoria altogether in favor of smaller satellite museums across BC

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The premier raised the prospect of a decentralized model for the museum which would stimulate rural areas of BC and give autonomy to Indigenous communities in showing their history.

“Is the location the only location for a museum?” Horgan mused Wednesday. “Will we decentralize, as a response to an earlier question about whether we stimulate more activity in rural areas, and taking some of these artifacts and returning them to the territories where they came from whether they are Indigenous or otherwise? So I think there is a great opportunity to reduce costs as a result of these conversations.”

Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said while Horgan made the right decision to stop the demolition, he’s worried about the prospect Victoria will lose an anchor attraction.

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“We hope any rumblings or rumors of it actually leaving Victoria don’t happen because that would figuratively and literally leave a big hole in our tourist economy,” Williams said. “The tourism sector has just gone through arguably the worst two years in their history. And to then add to that, taking away this anchor tenant from this region would be disastrous.”

If the original tear down and rebuild had gone ahead, the museum planned to take exhibits on the road during its eight-year closure. It’s unclear if the idea for satellite exhibits still stands.

Royal BC Museum CEO Alicia Dubois initially agreed to an interview with Postmedia News but suddenly canceled on Thursday.

The Tourism Ministry said in a statement that the museum would be looking at how to best use the space until plans for the museum are settled.

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“The museum is continuing to offer additional opportunities for British Columbians and visitors to enjoy the galleries, including webinars, traveling and satellite exhibits, and online learning. The museum has also captured the galleries — including Old Town — via 3D tour, to be published online this year.”

The province will still forge ahead on building a $224-million archives and collection building in Colwood, a suburb of Victoria. With a completion date of 2025, the building will eventually house many of the items now stored in the 14-storey Fannin building wing of the museum.

The museum is also in the process of repatriating items that belong to Indigenous communities.

Tourism Minister Melanie Mark, who is Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree and Ojibway, said in May returning the totem pole that belongs to the Nuxalk First Nation is complicated because walls must be removed to get it out. Nuxalk Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa, who also goes by Deric Snow, is suing the Royal BC Museum and the BC government over the failure to return the pole carved by his great-grandfather, Louis Snow.

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Horgan stressed the museum is in desperate need of a revamp but he’s not in favor of a renovation because it’s unpractical and unsafe to tear down asbestos-filled walls while being open to visitors.

A business plan released by Mark on May 25 showed that renovating the building — which lacks adequate space to host world-class exhibits, is seismically unsound and houses priceless materials below sea-level — would cost just as much as tearing it down and starting over .

With white drywall closing off access to the third floor, the rest of the space is limited to a random assortment of exhibits on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Canadians, a multimedia project on COVID social distancing and the unchanged-in-decades natural history exhibit featuring wildlife replicas.

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Asked Wednesday how the museum can revitalize considering the third floor gallery has already been stripped bare, Horgan said there are seven million artifacts “and some of them have not seen the light of day for generations.”

“So I don’t believe there’ll be any challenge in filling spaces in the exhibit hall to ensure that there’s a very full and comprehensive flavor all of the history and tapestry of what makes British Columbia so unique,” ​​he said.

The museum will embark on a provincewide consultation process to hear British Columbians’ ideas on the museum’s future. Details have not yet been released.

Geneva Standbridge, a teacher with the BC distance learning program EBUS Academy, visited the museum Thursday with about a dozen students and parents. She was happy that Horgan listened to feedback and heard that it was the wrong time for such a pricey endeavor.

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Victoria student Fred Jennings, 13, said he had been saddened by news that the museum would close for eight years.

Fred Jennings and Geneva Standbridge look at the woolly mammoth in the Royal BC Museum on Thursday, a day after Premier John Horgan announced the province is scrapping the $789-million replacement project.  Credit: Katie DeRosa/PNG
Fred Jennings and Geneva Standbridge look at the woolly mammoth in the Royal BC Museum on Thursday, a day after Premier John Horgan announced the province is scrapping the $789-million replacement project. Credit: Katie DeRosa/PNG Katie DeRosa

“It’s a long time not to have a museum,” he said. Asked about his favorite exhibit of him, Jennings said Old Town. Students like interactive and immersive exhibits, he said. If he had a say on what replaces Old Town, he’d like to see a re-creation of Fort Victoria, a fur trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Reflecting on the public backlash that led to his climb down, Horgan, a frequent visitor to the museum since childhood, said he couldn’t bear to see a provincial treasure turned into a political football or a “laugh line at a party or soccer pitch .”

He remains “relentlessly optimistic” about the institution’s future, whatever or wherever that may be.

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