This is the $1 billion concept and rationale for the new Royal BC Museum

May 27 2022, 12:10 am

Without the $1 billion plan to renew the Royal BC Museum, the BC NDP provincial government is warning British Columbia’s most precious artefacts and collections could be lost from a catastrophic failure of the 1968-built museum in downtown Victoria.

Facing a public relations backlash following last week’s announcement on the major investment and a prolonged eight-year period without the major tourist attraction in Victoria, the provincial government explained to media on Wednesday their rationale for the approach and the early concepts for the redevelopment of the museum.

The project has also caught controversy not only for its unexplained cost, but over the lack of public consultation before arriving at this advanced stage of the planning process — adding to the previous public and media criticism over the museum’s decision last fall to permanently close and gut its highly popular third floor galleries on European settlement with no public consultation and little advance warning. Initially, reconciliation and decolonization were the main reasons for third floor closure, but this rationale was later downplayed.

The “risk of doing nothing”

According to the provincial government’s analysis of the condition of the existing complex, its poor structural seismic capacity rating ranges between a low of 5% for the archives building and Carillon Tower and a high of 40% for the museum lobby. Provincial officials painted the picture of a potential collapse of the building even in a moderately powerful earthquake.

The building’s exhibits and underground storage areas — where seven million pieces of artefacts and collections are stored — could be lost from a structural failure.

BC tourism minister Melanie Mark also specifically noted a flood could destroy the museum’s precious Emily Carr collection stored in the existing basement. The museum is located at the edge of Victoria Inner Harbour — which is vulnerable to significant tsunamis — and the underground storage spaces are located below sea level.

Aside from structural deficiencies, the building’s condition is also poor, with exposed rebar in the concrete in some areas, and occasional sewage backups and flooding within the building due to utilities failures.

Mark said the “risk of doing nothing” could “wipe out our culture,” and that “someone will be to blame if we do nothing” and a calamity occurs at the museum. Since it was constructed over half a century ago, the museum building has seen relatively little reinvestment.

“Our plan was to come forward to the public and understand what is at risk. There is a cost of doing nothing and to protect our shared history,” she said, adding to the need to protect visitors and museum workers.

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Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria (Google Earth)

“The most cost-effective way to get a new museum”

The provincial government examined five options to renew the museum, and it ultimately selected the fourth option of building a brand new museum building at the 6.4-acre site, and a new secondary facility for the archives, collections, storage, and research needs.

Out of the five options explored, the selected fourth option is the second most expensive and second longest construction schedule. The first option, the status quo, would cost $89 million, while option two of a single new museum building on a new location would cost $811 million. The third option of building a brand new museum building on the existing location would cost $893 million.

The fifth option of retaining and extensively repairing the existing complex would take the longest to build and cost over $1.1 billion — more than the selected fourth option of building a new museum on-site, and a secondary facility off-site.

The secondary facility will be located in the Victoria suburb of Colwood, on land acquired by the provincial government. Construction on the $224 million secondary facility in Colwood will begin later this year for completion in 2025. The provincial government is currently in the process of completing the procurement process for the design and construction contractor.

As for the new main museum building at the existing location, the provincial government explained its $789 million cost includes $550 million for the design and construction contract, and a further $239 million for the cost of demolishing the existing complex, designing and outfitting the new building’s interior spaces with exhibitions and galleries, project management and insurance, equipment, and a contingency fund for unexpected costs. The cost accounts for the forecasted high annual inflation in the construction industry, reaching a high of 10% this year, 9% in 2023, and 6% in 2024.

“This is the most cost-effective way to get a new state-of-the-art museum,” said Mark, noting that a complete new build from scratch is easier and cheaper, and that lower cost options are insufficient.

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The existing Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria. (Royal BC Museum)

As for the eight-year closure of the main museum — given the existing building’s planned closure starting in September 2022 until the new museum building’s opening in 2030 —  it was explained that preparing for the move would account for a substantial chunk of that timeline.

The process of packing and moving the millions of artefacts alone will take 2.5 years — initially relocating the artefacts to a temporary storage facility, before relocating these collections to the completed Colwood facility in 2025. This process includes cleaning artefacts, and even a single mask, for instance, could take two to three days to clean. Prior to being carefully put in storage, all items also need to be barcoded.

The closure of the museum after Labour Day 2022 allows the time-intensive process of packing to begin so that the demolition and construction timeline is not delayed.

The demolition of the existing downtown Victoria museum building, including hazardous materials removal, will take another 2.5 years. The museum building construction process on its own will take four years, followed by another 1.5 years for outfitting the exhibition spaces and galleries.

A design for the museum has not been established, nor has an architect been selected. But the provincial government is aiming to start the procurement process for a contractor in late 2022, with the contract awarded in early 2024 — likely timed before the next provincial election.

The museum building design process would take place between early 2024 and the middle of 2025. The existing building would be demolished between early 2022 and Summer 2025, at which point construction on the new building will commence.

The process of planning and designing the new exhibits and galleries will occur from Summer 2024 to Spring 2027.

“The [existing] exhibits don’t reflect the past and where we are today,” said Mark, reiterating reconciliation and decolonization as part of the rationale for the museum renewal.

New and expanded spaces of the world-class museum in Victoria

Short of creating and commissioning an architectural design, museum officials and the provincial government have scoped out what the new museum building will contain.

The new replacement museum building will have 230,000 sq ft of total floor area, including 18,000 sq ft of public spaces, 95,000 sq ft of exhibit, learning, and program spaces, 15,500 sq ft of learning and exhibition support space, 17,900 sq ft of building services spaces, and 8,500 sq ft of museum operations and office space. Although the vast majority of RBCM’s collections and research functions will be located off-site at the Colwood facility, the Victoria museum will still contain about 26,000 sq ft of collections and research space, and 1,300 sq ft of archives and conservation space.

When the total floor areas of the Colwood facility and new Victoria museum building are combined, the RBCM’s useable spaces by 2030 will amount to a 26% increase over what exists today. With the added exhibition and gallery spaces, the museum has a 25-year capacity to grow.

Not only will more of the museum’s collections be displayed within the expanded exhibition and gallery spaces, given that only 1% of the collection was previously displayed, but the modern facilities and equipment will allow RBCM to attract world-class touring exhibitions from around the world. The quality of the facility stipulates whether other museums and collections will be loaned to RBCM.

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Highly preliminary concept of the new Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria; not the actual design. (Government of BC)

royal bc museum victoria concept new

Highly preliminary concept of the new Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria; not the actual design. (Government of BC)

The new museum will also have a new replacement IMAX theatre that uses the latest digital technology, a multi-purpose and event space with a catering kitchen, gift shop, cafe, minor retail space through an Indigenous artist cooperative, and underground pay parking.

RBCM officials previously contemplated adding a hotel, office tower, restaurants, and street-level retail, but they later determined that these additional uses were risky and not core to the museum’s main business. The museum does not want to be a landlord, even if it would generate additional revenue.

The concept for the new museum opens the possibility for adding a childcare component, but this is currently not included in the project, and depends on further funding.

Premier John Horgan previously indicated the building will use mass timber construction, incorporate traditional Indigenous design considerations, and be built to a high green design standard.

Mark says the structural safety issues with the existing complex have been known since the 2000s, and that she received a standing ovation from BC NDP colleagues for committing to do this work.

Thousands of pages of analysis, studies, and planning documents on the RBCM were released to media on Wednesday, but much of it is heavily redacted.


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