Tourists from Texas and Idaho, and schoolchildren from across BC, wandered through the Royal BC Museum’s natural history gallery on Thursday, snapping photos in front of the woolly mammoth.
At just $5, admission is about the same price as a latte at the adjacent cafe.
The cashier explained that the discounted price was due to the empty third floor that 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 was unclear a day after Prime Minister John Horgan announced the province was abandoning his much-criticized $789 million plan to close, demolish and rebuild the museum by 2030.
Horgan’s change of heart on what the opposition has dubbed his “vanity museum project” raises questions about how the 54-year-old institution will recover after being labeled seismically unsafe and riddled with asbestos.
One possibility is to scrap the model of a single provincial museum in Victoria in favor of smaller museums in BC.
The prime minister raised the prospect of a decentralized model that would stimulate rural BC and empower indigenous communities to showcase their history.
“Is location the only location for a museum?” Horgan reflected on Wednesday. “Will we decentralize, in response to a previous question about whether we stimulate more activity in rural areas, and taking some of these artifacts and returning them to the territories that they came from, whether indigenous or not? So I think there’s a huge opportunity to cut costs as a result of these talks.”
Bruce Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said that while Horgan made the right decision to stop the demolition, he is concerned Victoria could lose a major attraction.
“We’re hoping there won’t be any rumors about Victoria leaving because that would leave a big void figuratively and literally in our tourism economy,” Williams said. “The tourism sector has just gone through possibly the two worst years in its history. And then to add to that, removing this anchor tenant from this region would be disastrous.”
If the original demolition and reconstruction had gone ahead, the museum planned to bring exhibits to the street during its eight-year closure. It’s not clear if the idea of traveling exhibits is still going. Royal BC Museum Director General Alicia Dubois initially agreed to an interview but suddenly called it off on Thursday.
The Tourism Ministry said in a statement that the museum will seek the best way to use the space until plans are worked out.
“The museum continues 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, through a 3D tour, which will be released online this year.”
The province is going ahead with a $224 million Archives and Collections building in Colwood, due for completion in 2025. It will eventually house many of the items now stored in the museum’s 14-story Fannin Wing. The museum is also in the process of repatriating items belonging to indigenous communities.
Tourism Minister Melanie Mark, who is Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree and Ojibway, said in May that returning a totem pole belonging 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 for failing to return the pole carved by his great-grandfather Louis Snow.
Horgan stressed that the museum needs a renovation, but he’s not in favor of a renovation because it’s not practical or safe to tear down asbestos-filled walls while it’s open to visitors.
A business plan released on May 25 showed that renovating the building would cost 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 history exhibit. unchanged in decades that features wildlife replicas.
Asked Wednesday how the museum can be revitalized considering the third-floor gallery has already been dismantled, Horgan said there are seven million artifacts “and some of them haven’t seen the light of day for generations. So I don’t think there is any challenge in filling the spaces in the showroom to ensure that there is a very full and complete flavor of the entire history and tapestry of what makes British Columbia so unique.”
The museum will embark on a province-wide consultation to hear British Columbians’ ideas about the museum’s future. Details have not been disclosed.
Geneva Standbridge, a teacher in the BC EBUS Academy distance learning program, visited the museum Thursday with a dozen students and parents. She was happy that Horgan listened to the comments and realized that the time was wrong for an expensive endeavor.
Victoria student Fred Jennings, 13, said he was saddened by the news that the museum would close for eight years.
“It’s a long time without having a museum,” he said. When asked about his favorite exhibit, Fred said Old Town. Students like the interactive and immersive exhibits, she said. If he had a say in what replaces Old Town, he’d like to see a recreation of Fort Victoria, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post.
Reflecting on the public backlash that led to his going 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 “laughter line at a party or football field”. .”
He remains “relentlessly optimistic” about the institution’s future, he said.
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