Next week, the British Columbia government will lay out its business case for spending nearly $800-million to rebuild the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. The announcement, made May 13, was a shocker. B.C. Premier John Horgan promised a “safer, more inclusive and accessible modern building” that will become a flagship destination for generations to come.
It has become a hot political issue: $789-million to build a new museum? That feels like a lot to some British Columbians, particularly as the pandemic drags on, family doctors are quitting while citing low pay, and affordable housing remains a pipe dream out here.
In an interview on Friday, Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Minister Melanie Mark said the project was needed for many reasons, including the collection’s safety. “The cost of doing nothing is a cost that people have to contemplate,” said Mark, who represents a Vancouver riding.
“There’s significant risk to the building and the risk is wiping out our collective history.”
Mark said the structural problems with the existing building – including seismic issues – have been known since 2006, when, she pointed out, the BC Liberals were in power.
The Liberals have been hammering the proposal, calling it stupid, a vanity project and a waste of money. BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said he would cancel it.
“It’s unacceptable that, in the middle of an affordability crisis with costs of living higher than ever, John Horgan and the NDP are committing to the most expensive museum project in Canadian history,” Falcon tweeted on Wednesday. “Cancel this now, and invest in people today.”
The museum, at Victoria’s Inner Harbour, along with the provincial archives, is a big attraction for families and school groups. Until January, the Royal BC Museum included displays about the Indigenous and settler history of what is now British Columbia. That entire floor was shut down, after criticism of the way those histories have been told by the museum (separately, for one). But then the shutdown, including of the beloved Old Town, caused more criticism.
The current building is set to close in September, not reopening until 2030.
A previously announced storage facility is being constructed outside Victoria in Colwood, at an additional cost of $224-million, where the provincial archives and much of the museum’s collection will be housed. But other artifacts, including Indigenous collections, are to remain at the main site, Mark said.
This month’s high-price, bare-bones museum announcement has drawn fire from a variety of perspectives – and not just by opposition politicians.
First of all, that price tag. What else could that money pay for? New schools, more nurses, better pay for family doctors – there is a huge shortage out here.
As for the seismic issues, what about the upgrades needed at a slew of other buildings, including schools and hospitals?
The museum is planning to send out travelling exhibits during the closing, but still, that means a lot of closed years that children won’t be able to visit the provincial museum. Parents are doing the math: 10-year-olds who get a kick out of the woolly mammoth display today will be able to vote by the time the new museum opens.
Also, the museum has been through its own controversy. A high-profile Indigenous curator quit, citing systemic racism at the organization. An independent report echoed her concerns, leading to an apology from the museum. The now former executive director left in the midst of all this.
This isn’t exactly the kind of record that deserves an $800-million reward.
Although for Mark, who is Indigenous, this is part of the heart of the matter. She has previously talked about the need to decolonize the museum. The new facility’s content will be modernized – along with its bricks and mortar (and wood) – to reflect provincial history in a broader, more inclusive way, in collaboration with local First Nations.
By closing far in advance of being able to even have a design, then rebuilding from the ground up, is the government signalling that it sees this as a burn-it-all-down situation?
Then there’s the matter of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which has been pleading for a new home for years. In 2008, then-BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell announced $50-million for a new gallery. The VAG has been seeking another $50-million from the province, to no avail. It has a site, a design and private money: In November, philanthropist Michael Audain announced a $100-million donation to the project. But it needs more from the province, and Ottawa. The VAG, years ahead of the Royal BC Museum in this process, remains open at its current location.
Further, after the current outcry, will governments be gun-shy about investing in culture?
Mark said this is not an either/or situation – not when it comes to funding artists or arts organizations who are struggling as a result of the pandemic. And not when it comes to the VAG which, she said is “on our radar.”
When I asked Mark if she was surprised by the negative reaction, she said she wants to focus on there being a risk to the “people’s museum.”
It hasn’t helped the government’s PR campaign that the Premier, when asked this week about the record high gas prices (I paid $2.29 a litre to gas up the other day), said people should think twice before getting in their cars. As one resident wondered on Twitter, how are we to afford to drive to the new museum?
Mark said the business case, to be shared on Wednesday, demonstrates the rationale for why this is necessary.
Would the government reconsider the project, given the response?
“I recognize that there is a reaction right now,” Mark said. But she said people have a different opinion once they understand the risk. “Someone will be to blame if our history is wiped out.”
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