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It’s the jewel of the province’s historical institutions, and the government plans to spend millions modernizing it. In an interview, its leader says the time is right for new facilities

Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal BC Museum, looks through the rolling racks of the museum's archeological collection. Mr. Lohman says the current museum building allows only a small fraction of the seven million items in its collection to be put on display at any one time.Photography by Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

It’s the home of the world’s largest collection of Emily Carr paintings, sketches and other possessions of the legendary artist as well as the actual Douglas Treaties, which helped to set the foundation for modern British Columbia. John Lennon’s 1960s-era Rolls Royce is there, once used by the Beatles to go to Buckingham Palace to be honoured by the Queen and bought by B.C.-based billionaire Jimmy Pattison.

These are only a few of more than seven-million artifacts in the Royal BC Museum, a 51-year-old complex in downtown Victoria that provincial Culture Minister Lisa Beare calls “a jewel of our province” for its role in displaying and explaining B.C. history.

But the province has concluded it’s time for an all-round overhaul of the museum; a revamp that covers the bricks and mortar as well as the way in which the museum tells B.C.'s story.

The Royal BC Museum's current building.

Museum chief executive Jack Lohman, a veteran of the Museum of London as well as an organization representing 15 national museums in South Africa, says the upgrade should include a new building.

That raises the possibility of a project costing hundreds of millions of dollars in a province where efforts to build a new Vancouver Art Gallery have become bogged down over similar multimillion-dollar costs. Upgrades to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, completed this past October, cost $375-million.

But Mr. Lohman says a new museum building, as opposed to a renovation, is the way to go, and the edge in getting it done is a provincial government that is enthusiastic about the museum as a provincial asset.

“In my own view, I think a new building is going to serve British Columbians better than a 50-year-old building with poor access, dependent on lifts and spaces that don’t work for us,” Mr. Lohman said.

In recent remarks, for example, Premier John Horgan has been talking about using any new museum upgrade as a showcase for B.C. wood products as part of a continuing commitment to use such components in government infrastructure projects.

Mr. Lohman, who has been with the B.C. museum since 2012 , says the current B.C. complex – which has issues with asbestos – allows only a small fraction of museum holdings to be displayed. Although the current building is about 50 years old, the museum has existed as an institution for about 133 years.

Located alongside the provincial legislature and Empress Hotel, the museum has three permanent galleries covering First Nations’ history, natural history and modern history. It includes an IMAX theatre. In recent years, annual attendance has hovered between 710,000 and 790,000.

Visitors queue up at the museum, whose current building was built in the 1960s.

The museum gets a $11.9-million annual grant from the province, covering a little more than half of its operating budget.

Mr. Lohman said it’s too soon to be specific about costs for a new Royal B.C. Museum complex, but cited the costs of various new and renovated museums, including $351-million to build the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, which opened in 2014, as well as the upgrades of the Royal Alberta Museum. “You can see that a certain ambition provides a certain cost,” he said. “Until the studies are done, I wouldn’t like to say [the cost] should be this or that, but there are a lot of benchmarks out there in terms of what new museums are costing.”

The NDP government of B.C. is not ruling out that ambition or cost after promising, in the latest Throne Speech, to “modernize” the museum to better protect its historic holdings and to provide better access to its collections.

It is also beginning work on a business plan for the future of a museum that now receives an annual $11.9-million provincial grant covering about 54 per cent of its operating budget.

Asked whether she prefers a new building or renovation, Ms. Beare said, “That’s what the business case is going to look at, what will be the best option, whether it is a rebuild of the existing building or the ability to renovate in phases the current building. That work is being done right now.”

But a new building is only one part of the equation under consideration. Without getting into specifics, Ms. Beare says there needs to be a rethink of the museum’s tactics for telling the story of B.C. “We want to make sure a modern museum is able to tell the stories of all the people of British Columbia. This is an opportunity to make sure we are doing that,” she said.

She declined to say whose stories might currently be left out, simply saying, “We’re not keeping scorecards."

Mr. Lohman stands alongside a taxidermied moose, grey whale skull and other specimens in the vertebrate zoology collection room.

Mr. Lohman looks through a tray containing flints from the Thompson River and other materials from all over the province.

However, Mr. Lohman said he hopes to see the museum deal more with global issues of extinction, biodiversity loss, First Nations’ history and the impact of Asia on B.C. “We need to rewrite the story of British Columbia. I think everybody in the province agrees it doesn’t begin in 1778 with the arrival of James Cook. It actually goes back several thousand years," he said. “What’s wrong is we’re peddling a narrative that is way out of date.”

Members of the public called for this kind of rethink in recent consultations that ran between April and June in seven meetings held in five B.C. communities. One submission said the museum was behind the times. “After visiting the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C., I couldn’t believe how old our exhibits and layouts are,” said Andrea.

In addition to suggestions there be more content on the environment, the more consistent request was for more inclusion. There are calls for more stories about black immigrants and Japanese, South Asian and Doukhobors people. “Women, and especially minority women’s history in the province, is sorely lacking in the present museum,” wrote one woman. Another called for a “decolonized perspective” on B.C.

“I would love to see more information on Indigenous perspectives and history. A lot of the museum focuses on the settlers’ history and it makes it appear like the Indigenous people weren’t here and weren’t colonized,” said Michaela.

Mr. Lohman said he is open to change, and optimistic about the opportunity to see it happen. Based on his experience, he said passion is key to success in museum projects.

“You need the right idea at the right time, but that needs to be embraced with passion and passion will bring supporters, philanthropists, government and so on," he said. “I think this is the right time.”

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