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An exhibit from the third floor of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria on Dec. 29, 2021.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Premier John Horgan has halted an ambitious but costly and controversial plan to shut down the Royal BC Museum and rebuild a new facility over the next eight years, acknowledging that his government misread public sentiment.

“I made the wrong call,” he told a news conference in Victoria on Wednesday.

“It’s been 40 days. That’s long enough for rains and an ark and it’s long enough … to be clear to me [this project] was becoming a political item rather than an item of pride for all British Columbians.”

Mr. Horgan said he thought he was delivering good news back in May when he revealed the plan to spend $789-million to rebuild the provincial museum at its current location in Victoria, which would have seen the museum close this September and not reopen for about eight years.

The plan came as a surprise as there had been little public discussion about closing the museum entirely and starting over. Immediately, the Opposition BC Liberals seized upon the price tag, at a time when people are dealing with a sharp rise in the cost of living and heath care crises that include a shortage of family doctors.

Tourism operators in Victoria were aghast that as the industry is getting back on its feet after the pandemic, a major attraction was being abruptly closed.

Mr. Horgan says he was caught off guard by the negative response. “What I thought would be a positive announcement was greeted with a thud,” he said. “And from that point on it became clear to me that we needed to pause the project.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Horgan pledged to consult with the public to determine how to proceed with the project. He said all options were on the table, but said he does not personally support a renovation or partial rebuild of the current site. The status quo is not an option. He said in the end that the public might decide that the now-halted plan is the best way forward.

In the meantime, the museum will remain open indefinitely.

Mr. Horgan said he regrets that the public had the perception that his government was ignoring other urgent issues and he insisted that this was not an “either/or” situation – where the government was focusing on the museum to the detriment of other files.

The Premier said people expect sober second thought from their government. “The public did not come on that journey with us.”

Nor did the opposition; BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon dismissed it as a vanity project and had vowed to cancel it if he wins the 2024 election.

“While I’m pleased to see that the Premier said he’s going to put a pause on this, I want to be clear that this is no leadership moment,” said Mr. Falcon after the announcement on Wednesday. He accused Mr. Horgan of back-pedalling.

“He’s also saying that he won’t eliminate the possibility that the existing vision that the Premier has for this crazy boondoggle of a project could be one of the options coming out of the consultation,” he said.

Mr. Horgan accepted full responsibility for the public backlash and praised the ministers and staff who had put in what he said was five years of work to craft the plan.

“I want to put to rest any notion that this was a back-of-the-envelope undertaking,” Mr. Horgan told reporters on Wednesday.

“I cannot allow something that should be supported by all British Columbians to become a political football,” he added.

Since the initial announcement, the province had vehemently defended the plan, presenting a lengthy business case that showed that failing to act would be costly – both in terms of finances and safety.

That document stated that the museum is beyond its useful life and is seismically unsafe for visitors, staff, collections and exhibits. And it showed that replacing the museum on its current site would cost less than repairing or upgrading the existing facilities.

It pointed to other safety issues too, including hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead, mercury and arsenic – all of which would make rebuilding while keeping the museum even partly open impossible.

But when asked Wednesday if teachers or others should be concerned about taking children to the museum that has been declared in need of significant seismic upgrades, Mr. Horgan said the main concern is the Fannin Tower, where the collections are held and curatorial staff are located.

“The exhibit space is also seismically challenged, but it’s no more today than it was yesterday,” he added.

Mr. Horgan went to great pains to stress that visitors to the museum are safe from the asbestos in the walls; the hazardous materials would only be unleashed once the renovation was undertaken, which is why the building would have to be completely closed to visitors during demolition.

As for what will happen now to the vast areas of the museum that have been closed to the public, including Old Town and the Indigenous galleries, Mr. Horgan said he didn’t think it would be a challenge to fill those empty halls so there will be more there for visitors to see.

The rebuild had also been championed by Melanie Mark, Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Minister, who had warned that acting now was essential.

“There’s significant risk to the building and the risk is wiping out our collective history,” she told The Globe and Mail in a May interview.

The Globe was told that Ms. Mark was not available for an interview on Wednesday.

In a statement sent to The Globe and attributed to her, Ms. Mark said it was clear that British Columbians want more of a say about the future of the museum.

“We remain committed to repatriation, Indigenous consultation and to addressing long-standing structural and safety issues with the museum’s buildings. Through this engagement, we will ensure the future of the museum will reflect the priorities of British Columbians for generations to come.”

With a report from Justine Hunter

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