"Slow-moving disaster": Horgan government slammed over costly Royal BC Museum rebuild

May 16 2022, 4:49 pm

When BC’s tourism minister announced a new $789 million rebuild of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria last week, she took great pains to point out all the people who will benefit from the change.

“Today, we are making true on our promise to bring the people’s museum into the 21st Century,” Melanie Mark said, at Friday’s press conference.

“This will be the people’s museum in all corners of the province.”

But no sooner was the announcement over than critics were suggesting just the opposite – that the government’s abrupt decision to declare many of the museum’s popular exhibits inappropriately colonial, demolish long-standing attractions like Old Town, and unilaterally close the facility for more than seven years as part of an unknown rebuild, all before consulting the public, actually served to divide the community in an unnecessary way.

“It’s been a slow-moving disaster as far as I can see,” said Adam Olsen, the BC Green MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.

The closure of the entire museum until 2030 caught many off guard. It also means many children currently in K-12 will graduate without the chance to learn at the institution.

However, it wasn’t totally unexpected.

The Royal BC Museum has been embroiled in controversy over the past few years

The previous two people to head the facility’s Indigenous collection resigned and levelled accusations of racism and discrimination at the institution. An independent review last June concluded racism and bullying in the workplace did occur. The CEO stepped down.

The museum in late 2021 unexpectedly announced it was permanently dismantling the popular 50-year-old European settler exhibits on the third floor, including recreations of Old Town (a depiction of a turn-of-the-century BC town) and HMS Discovery (Capt. George Vancouver’s ship) to help with “decolonization of the museum’s galleries” and reconciliation.

The move set off a bitter dispute in the community, dividing those for whom the museum is a beloved local institution, and those who see it as an out-of-date reminder of BC’s colonial past.

New Democrat MLAs in Greater Victoria – of which, four are cabinet ministers – received an earful. In response, a few months later, the government changed its tune to say the closures were due to seismic instability and hazardous materials.

If the government was truly trying to advance First Nations reconciliation with the changes, it failed because it hasn’t brought the general public along with it, said Olsen.

“The government is not bringing the community along, they are doing the exact opposite, they are announcing things and there’s a response to it,” he said.

“What they could be doing is saying, hey the problem is with this organization that is inherently problematic for Indigenous people, but it’s also quite acceptable for a large number of the population in that this is how they’ve engaged history, so how do we bring those together to create an exciting opportunity?”

Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, said no one is disputing the Royal BC Museum needs a rethink in how it downplays the harmful colonialism of European settlers to Indigenous people, fails to adequately represent First Nation contributions to the province and has locked thousands of precious cultural items belonging to Indigenous people away in cabinets or basement vaults.

But embarking on an enormously expensive new project – which will total more than $1 billion once new archives are built in a separate facility in neighbouring Colwood – before addressing the fundamental rethink of how the museum should operate, is the wrong move, said Olsen.

The closure and rebuild of the Royal BC Museum was endorsed by both the chiefs of both the Songhees and Esquimalt nations, who said they look forward to redesigning a provincial landmark that will better reflect the shared history of all peoples. Greater Victoria and BC tourism representatives, as well as local mayors, also praised the move’s potential long-term benefits.

Critics aghast at the cost of the upgrades for the facility

The large $1 billion price tag came at a time when the BC government is begging Ottawa for more money to keep the healthcare system from collapsing, and telling British Columbians it can’t afford to provide any more immediate financial help to the rising price of gasoline or inflation.

“What we saw was a visceral response from locals,” said Liberal finance critic Peter Milobar. “At a time when it appears clinics and family doctors are not being funded appropriately to enable people to have access to healthcare, the priority of the premier seemed to be a billion dollars on a museum project.”

Premier John Horgan spent half the press conference at the museum under fire on gas prices, before blurting out in one answer that people should carpool with neighbours as one step to mitigate the rising costs. Critics piled out to the response, and Milobar called it a “slap in the face” to everyone adjusting their family budgets to accommodate increased prices for food, fuel and other items.

Then there’s the issue 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 late and over-budget on highway, bridge and other infrastructure projects.

“We have gone through the due diligence that governments must do when making massive investments like this,” said Horgan. Mark added that “the business case informed that this is what it’s going to take” to do the work.

But the business case is not publicly available. There is no design for the structures, no architectural drawings, no description of the new attractions, and no procurement process. And there’s not even concept art of what might be the vision.

How the province narrowed down a very specific budget of exactly $789 million for a project without even a whiff of the start of a design, remains an open and unanswered question.

In the end, Horgan insists it will be worth it, no matter the cost.

“It is a significant amount, but this is 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 are just arriving. And that really is priceless.”


But if the Royal BC Museum project continues to generate as much controversy and community ill-will as it already has in the last few years, the BC NDP government may not only be worried about the financial cost, but the ongoing political cost as well.

Rob Shaw is Daily Hive’s Political Columnist, tackling the biggest political stories in BC. You can catch him on CHEK News as their on-air Political Correspondent.

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