Opinion: Royal BC Museum has no real plan and needs to pause exhibit closures

Dec 9 2021, 8:56 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Lucas Aykroyd, an award-winning Victoria-born journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. In 2009, he was nominated for an Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC (now Indigenous Tourism BC) media award.

World-class museums rarely disassemble their galleries without releasing a plan, budget, or timeline for what will replace them. However, that is exactly what the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) in Victoria is doing as it rushes to shut down its human history galleries, including the acclaimed Old Town exhibition, in the name of modernization and decolonization on January 2, 2022.

It is time to put the museum’s ill-defined redevelopment on hold before it is too late.

Since the sudden November 3 announcement of the closures, RBCM has taken heat for offering euphemisms over transparency and accountability. Its website says: “Closing and disassembling the third-floor galleries is an important first step on a journey to broaden historical narratives and foster inclusivity.”

While these are both praiseworthy aims, especially in light of the museum’s June 29 apology for internal anti-Indigenous racism, the logical first step is to plan how best to put them into practice. RBCM’s “destroy first and figure it out later” approach is ill-considered. Right now, no one knows how many years the third floor will be closed, what the replacement galleries will look like, or how much this will all cost.

Few British Columbians want the existing core galleries totally ripped out. Most favour a thoughtful, nuanced approach that includes overhauling the outdated First Peoples galleries with reconciliation at the forefront, updating the Old Town, and expanding the representation of Asian, Black, and other non-European communities in BC history.

royal bc museum third floor exhibits removal

Exhibits on the third floor of Royal BC Museum that will be removed for “decolonization.” (Royal BC Museum)

However, in any scenario, having a well-thought-out plan benefits everyone. Crucially, the museum’s ability to do justice both to Indigenous peoples — including through the repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural objects — and to the province’s settler and immigrant history would greatly increase with thorough planning. For Victoria tourism, the economic impact of a third-floor shutdown looms large. This impact could be mitigated by keeping as much of the museum as possible open during planning.

Current RBCM documents reveal multiple inconsistencies between the impending closures and the museum’s strategic and philosophical goals. There is a pattern of poor planning and communication.

Here are some vital questions for the RBCM board of directors. It is time to pause renovations until there are meaningful answers accompanied by a plan, budget, and timeline.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum closed in August 2021 for renovations. The $115 million price tag was confirmed in February 2020. Glenbow’s Renovation Plan web page has a detailed timeline, including floor plans, for a 2024 completion. Why has RBCM not provided similar details?

In December 2016, RBCM announced a $10 million renovation plan with a 2,152 sq ft Emily Carr Gallery, a 4,400 sq ft Pacific Worlds Gallery with Indigenous treasures, and revamped First Peoples galleries. This plan never materialized. So what basis for confidence is there now — especially with no specific plans — that the third floor will not sit empty for years due to funding cuts or lack of consensus after the disassembling?

In the latest issue of RBCM’s What’s InSight magazine (published online September 24, 2021), acting museum CEO Daniel Muzyka writes: “No decisions have been made yet about the downtown site: we are crunching numbers, discussing issues like sustainability and ensuring we are incredibly well prepared when we send our business case to the Treasury Board this fall.” What is that business case? Why has it not been publicly disclosed? How did RBCM get from “No decisions have been made” and aiming to be “incredibly well prepared” in late September to the abrupt November 3 announcement?

When was the meeting held at which the decision to close and disassemble the third-floor galleries in January 2022 was made? What exactly was said?

RBCM’s 2021/22 to 2023/24 Service Plan (April 2021) states: “Goal 1: Build back financial stability.” It projects a major increase in museum admission fees from $2.91 million (2021-22 budget) to $6.038 million (2023-24 plan). Meanwhile, the museum has halted the sale of annual memberships. How can RBCM expect to attract more visitors and hit revenue targets — even with feature exhibitions — if it closes the core galleries with no end in sight?

royal bc museum third floor exhibits removal

Exhibits on the third floor of Royal BC Museum that will be removed for “decolonization.” (Royal BC Museum)

RBCM has also committed to a new $170 million collections and research building in Colwood, slated for a 2025 completion. Under this economic burden, what is the logic behind undercutting the downtown museum’s viability as a tourist attraction indefinitely?

The museum’s Annual Service Plan Report (July 26, 2021) says it budgeted $390,000 for “professional services” in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2021, but spent $1.93 million — nearly five times as much. This report adds that “Other Expenses” — including “professional services for project work on the Museum Modernization project” — ran $4.34 million over budget. Will massive cost overruns also be acceptable as the museum’s redevelopment stretches beyond 2022?

The Annual Service Plan Report states: “In addition to the museum’s internal COVID-19 response, in 2021 the museum received additional funding of $3.4 million from the Province. The operations of the [Crown] Corporation are dependent on continued funding from the Province of British Columbia.” With such dependency on BC taxpayer funding and the uncertainty around COVID-19, is it sound fiscal judgement to shut down a popular museum floor with no plan in place?

What is the upper time limit on the third-floor closures? Two years? Five years? Longer?

In October 2019, SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue compiled feedback from BC residents on RBCM modernization. The resulting report says online respondents highlighted the Old Town as “a particularly immersive experience they currently enjoy.” No negative feedback is mentioned. Why, then, has RBCM targeted the Old Town for removal? More broadly, based on this precedent, why should British Columbians believe that the museum will listen to them during its nebulous process of “extensive community engagement and consultation” following dismantlement?


Lucas AykroydLucas Aykroyd

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