When BC’s tourism minister last week announced a new $789 million rebuild of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, she took great pains to name everyone who will benefit from the change.
“Today we are delivering on our promise to bring The People’s Museum into the 21st century,” Melanie Mark said at Friday’s press conference.
“It will be the people’s museum in every corner of the province.
But no sooner was the announcement over than critics suggested the exact opposite – that the government’s abrupt decision to inappropriately declare many of the museum’s popular exhibits colonial, demolish long-standing attractions like the Old Town, and unilaterally shut down the facility for more than seven years. as part of an unknown reconstruction, all before consulting the public, actually served to divide the community unnecessarily.
“From what I can see, this is a slow-moving disaster,” said Adam Olsen, BC Green MPP for Saanich North and the Islands.
The closure of the entire museum until 2030 caught many off guard. It also means that many children currently in K-12 will graduate without the opportunity to learn at the institution.
However, it wasn’t totally unexpected.
The two previous heads of the institution’s Indigenous collection have resigned and brought accusations of racism and discrimination within the institution. An independent review last June concluded that workplace racism and bullying is happening. The CEO resigned.
In late 2021, the museum unexpectedly announced that it was permanently dismantling the popular 50-year-old European settler exhibits on the third floor, including reconstructions of the Old Town (a depiction of a city from the turn of the century BC) and HMS Discovery (Captain George Vancouver’s ship) to assist in the “decolonization of the museum galleries” and reconciliation.
The move sparked a bitter dispute in the community, dividing those for whom the museum is a beloved local institution and those who view it as an antiquated reminder of British Columbia’s colonial past.
New Democrat MPs from Greater Victoria – four of whom are cabinet ministers – were well received. In response, a few months later the government changed its tone to say the closures were due to seismic instability and hazardous materials.
If the government was really trying to advance First Nations reconciliation with the changes, it failed because it didn’t bring the general public with it, Olsen said.
“The government doesn’t involve the community, they do the exact opposite, they announce things and there is a response to that,” he said.
“What they could do is say, hey, the problem is with this organization which is inherently problematic for indigenous people, but it’s also perfectly acceptable for a lot of the population in that that’s how they started the story, so how do we bring them together to create an exciting opportunity? »
Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, said no one disputes that the Royal BC Museum needs rethinking in the way it downplays European settlers’ harmful colonialism for Indigenous peoples, fails to adequately represent the contributions from First Nations to the province and locked away thousands of valuable cultural objects belonging to Aboriginal peoples in cabinets or basement vaults.
But embarking on a hugely expensive new project – which will total more than $1 billion once a new archive is built in a separate facility in nearby Colwood – before tackling the fundamental overhaul of how the museum should operate , is a bad decision, Olsen said.
The closure and reconstruction of the Royal BC Museum has been endorsed by Chiefs of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, who have said they look forward to the redesign of a provincial monument that will better reflect the shared history of all peoples. Tourism officials in Greater Victoria and British Columbia, as well as local mayors, also hailed the potential long-term benefits of the move.
Reviewers appalled at cost of facility upgrades
The hefty $1 billion price tag came at a time when the BC government is pleading with Ottawa for more money to save the health care system from collapsing and telling British Columbians it cannot afford to provide more immediate financial relief for rising gas prices or inflation.
“What we’ve seen is a visceral response from residents,” said Liberal Finance Critic Peter Milobar. “At a time when it seems that clinics and family doctors are not being adequately funded to allow people to access health care, the Prime Minister’s priority seemed to be a billion dollars on a museum.”
Prime Minister John Horgan spent half the press conference at the museum under fire over petrol prices, before blurting out in a response that people should carpool with neighbors as a step to mitigate the rise costs. Critics piled up at the response, and Milobar called it a “slap in the face” to anyone adjusting their family budget to account for rising prices for food, fuel and other items.
Then there’s the question of whether a provincial government can deliver a $1 billion project on time and on budget over seven years — when governments of all stripes routinely end up behind and over budget on projects. highways, bridges and other infrastructure.
“We did the due diligence that governments need to do when making massive investments like this,” Horgan said. Mark added that “the business case said that’s what it would take” to get the job done.
But the business case is not publicly available. There is no structural design, no architectural drawings, no description of new attractions and no procurement process. And there’s not even concept art of what the vision might be.
How the province slashed a very specific budget of exactly $789 million for a project without even a whiff of early design remains an open and unanswered question.
In the end, Horgan insists it will be worth it no matter the cost.
“IIt’s a significant amount, but it’s the place that will house the history, the collective history, of all British Columbians,” he said. “Those who have been here for thousands of years and those who have just arrived. And that’s really priceless.”
But if the Royal BC Museum project continues to generate as much controversy and community ill will as it has in recent years, BC’s NDP government may not only be concerned about the cost financial, but also of the permanent political cost.
Rob is the political columnist for Daily Hive, tackling the biggest political stories in British Columbia. You can see him on CHEK News as an on-air political correspondent.