It is no secret that Metro Vancouver lacks the same calibre and number of major museums that many other similarly-sized urban centres enjoy, but a new museum that acknowledges and celebrates British Columbia’s Chinese-Canadian cultural heritage is within the realm of possibility and could provide the region with a big boost with this aspect of its cultural attractions reputation.
The provincial government announced its partnership with the City of Vancouver last September to explore the creation of a new Chinese-Canadian museum, and it is now engaged in a public consultation process that will help guide the creation of a detailed proposal.
As part of the consultation process launched earlier this winter, the provincial government released an independent report created by global consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources that evaluated possible preliminary options.
Various options for a history museum and a potential additional culture centre component would likely have a construction cost of between $50 million and $100 million.
The report notes that the Royal British Columbia Museum, owned and operated by the provincial government, in Victoria has about 2,500 three-dimensional objects relating to Chinese-British Columbian history in back-of-house storage areas, but it “cannot be assumed at this time that these would be available to a new institution.”
Stories that could be told at the museum go back nearly 250 years, including the stories of colonial persecution and exploitation during the Fraser Gold Rush and construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the era of exclusion and injustice marked by the head tax of 1885 and Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, and changes to the immigration policies in the 1960s that enabled cultural cohesion, mutual support, entrepreneurial success, and equality.
“The vision for a BC Chinese History Museum also aims to attract and engage a new generation of Chinese Canadians to their heritage and rightfully celebrate the makers and making of the Chinese-Canadian story in BC,” reads the report.
“The museum could provide a unique setting for the Chinese-Canadian story balanced by thoughtful interpretation and scholarly authority with satellite displays across the province. It could be an opportunity to bring together for the very first time all the historical artefacts and collections, the maps, films, photographs, archives, audio recordings and stories linked to the Chinese-Canadian story and recognize these as essential part of the BC story.”
If there were also a cultural centre role to this museum, it would provide additional public programming opportunities focused on Chinese culture and language. However, it would not require significantly more physical space as it is focused largely on supplementary programs and events associated with the modern BC Chinese community.
The report suggests the appropriate potential sites for a museum are either within or near Vancouver’s Chinatown district or somewhere in Richmond, where there are large populations of Chinese residents and large potential tourist markets.
Although the report does not mention any specific potential properties for a physical museum, the City of Vancouver owns several large sites in Chinatown, including the 2.7-acre property at 180 Keefer Street — currently home to Chinatown Plaza mall and a parkade — and two large city blocks that will eventually be redeveloped after the viaducts demolition.
A physical museum location could also bolster both struggling Chinatown businesses and the UNESCO World Heritage site application spearheaded by the municipal and provincial governments.
Alternatively, the report suggests other museum options such as a virtual online museum or a living museum with a small visitor centre in Chinatown, but the potential positive impact and ability to meet the provincial government’s objectives would be significantly limited.
However, the researchers noted culturally specific museums generally see modest attendance figures, and all of the Chinese American museums are relatively small within 7,500 to 10,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space.
The highest Chinese American history museum is the free admission Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles with 60,000 annual visitors within its small exhibition area of 7,200 sq. ft.
This is followed by charged admission museums: the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco sees 20,000 annual visitors, the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City has 40,000, and Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of Asian American Experience has 50,000.
But Seattle’s museum has a wider Asia Pacific focus and is inside a larger 60,000-sq-ft building with about 35,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space.
In contrast, the City-owned Museum of Vancouver sees about 70,000 annual visitors, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC sees about 190,000 visitors, and in its latest fiscal year, the Vancouver Art Gallery reached a record 600,000 visitors.
This is not the first time a new museum on Asian culture has been contemplated. Oei Hong Leong, a Singaporean billionaire and the owner of Canadian Metropolitan Properties, which is the developer of the Plaza of Nations redevelopment, previously made public his intention of building a not-for-profit “world-class” museum showcasing his wide collection of Asian and Buddhist art.
The Vancouver Art Gallery’s plans to build a new $350-million purpose-built facility on the municipal government’s Larwill Park property is still active, and the provincial government has committed $50 million towards the project.