Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum announced abruptly earlier this month that it would close its third-floor core galleries on Jan. 2 as part of the “process of decolonization.”
The widespread public outcry – specifically about the disassembling of the museum’s immersive, educational and much-loved Old Town exhibition – is justified.
RBCM has had a rough ride in recent years. A high-profile reckoning with internal racism saw the resignation last year of Lucy Bell, a Haida woman who headed the Indigenous collections and repatriation department, followed by that of long-time museum chief executive Jack Lohman in February. RBCM apologized publicly for discriminatory behaviour in June, and on Nov. 3 announced it would get rid of the Old Town and other displays of European-settler history to create “new narratives.”
With that said, no compelling reason exists to remove a unique, multisensory recreation of turn-of-the-century Victoria – complete with a passing train and dim-lit cobblestone streets – that continues to engage visitors.
To understand the pitfalls of gutting the Old Town without a well-thought-out plan in place, RBCM’s board of directors need only look across Belleville St. at the Crystal Garden.
The B.C. Provincial Capital Commission – a now-defunct Crown agency – shuttered a popular nature conservation centre and replaced it in 2006 with the privately owned B.C. Experience. This $20-million tourism showcase featuring a sprawling B.C. map, dull video presentations and overpriced tickets went bankrupt in three months.
As a Victoria-born travel journalist who frequently spotlights B.C. attractions for global publications, I have no desire to see a similar fiasco unfold at RBCM.
The Old Town was completed in 1972. The way to mark the 50th anniversary of a great work of art is to revitalize it, not destroy it.
The museum has said in an online FAQ that it is “at the very beginning of the process of creating new galleries.” In other words, the intent is to take down the Old Town and only then figure out the next steps through a vaguely described process of “extensive community engagement and consultation.”
There is still no coherent explanation as to why the Old Town could not be preserved while a review takes place. RBCM has not even publicly floated the option of giving it to an outside party, such as Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition, to ensure its survival. None of this inspires confidence that whatever replaces the Old Town will be an upgrade.
Growing up, I loved smelling the cinnamon in the exhibition’s replica kitchen, hearing the blacksmith at work, and viewing vintage movies in the theatre. That feeling of discovery helped spur me toward a journalism career that has taken me to museums on six continents. RBCM is still among the world’s best.
This is not about living in a nostalgic fog. If the Old Town is incomplete or oversanitized, RBCM can take steps to incorporate the experiences of Indigenous, Asian, Black and other communities.
There is a model to follow. In 1992, the museum added a beautifully detailed Chinatown section to the Old Town, using award-winning historian David Chuenyan Lai’s research and funding from the Victoria Chinatown Lions Club. It has contributed to RBCM’s success.
Admittedly, there is a larger conversation here. Modernization and decolonization are long overdue, specifically for the First Peoples galleries.
Former Indigenous collections curator Troy Sebastian, who is Ktunaxa, targeted the museum’s general depiction of First Nations people on Twitter this month as “faceless,” pointing out the inaccuracies in interpretive signs, the need to repatriate cultural treasures and the importance of showing present-day Indigenous experiences. Few will quibble with these blunt assessments.
However, the Old Town does not promote a triumphalist colonial narrative. Rather, it evocatively shows how people lived in Victoria more than a century ago.
In 2015, TripAdvisor named RBCM Canada’s best museum for the second year in a row. That same year, the Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in British Columbia exhibition won the American Alliance of Museums’ Excellence in Exhibitions award. Yet even the latter is slated to be closed now. How does this make sense?
In the 1960s, we saw the downside of demolishing beloved historic buildings in the name of modernization. Take Hogan’s Alley, an historic Black neighbourhood in Vancouver that was bulldozed in 1967 to make way for the Georgia Viaduct, a decision now widely deplored. Unlike Hogan’s Alley, the Old Town is not a living community, but its removal is similarly misguided.
Dismantling the exhibition does not further the path to reconciliation. Yes, it is time to bring the museum’s portrayal of Indigenous people into the 21st century. But it’s also time to ensure that the Old Town survives to reflect an important chapter – for good or ill – in B.C. history.
Special to the Globe and Mail
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.