Chunk of ceiling falls at Maritime Museum in downtown Victoria

The Maritime Museum of British Columbia is renewing calls for increased government funding after it was forced to close part of its building Friday because some of the ceiling fell in.

Museum staff said a visitor discovered the fallen plaster in its B.C. Ferries exhibit on Thursday night, and the 400-square-foot room was closed to the public. A section of ceiling measuring about 75 centimetres by 75 centimetres crumbled, knocking a lifebuoy off a display wall and leaving debris on the floor. No one was hurt.

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The museum occupies a 125-year-old heritage building that it leases from the provincial government. The building in Bastion Square is managed by Shared Services B.C., part of the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services.

Kristy Fallon, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, said the incident reflects the toll that age and lack of upkeep are taking on the building. There are cracks in many of the walls and, five years ago, the ceiling of the third floor suffered water damage and had to be repaired.

“We seem to be on the bottom of the province’s agenda,” Fallon said.

In a statement, the ministry said: “The province recognizes the importance of our maritime heritage and provides support to the Maritime Museum of B.C. through subsidized rent and by absorbing operating costs. 

"As with all buildings the province owns and manages, safety of tenants is a priority. All of our properties have dedicated facility managers who maintain the building and are regularly on-site and notify us of any maintenance needed – in particular health and safety related issues."

The statement did not specifically address the problem with the museum's ceiling.

The museum is managed by the non-profit Maritime Museum of British Columbia society and generates yearly revenue of about $650,000.

The budget covers expenses to maintain the exhibits and artifacts as well as pay staff.

About 20.4 per cent of the budget comes from the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government — much lower than what other museums receive, said Jan Drent.

Drent, a trustee and past president of the museum society, said most museums in Canada receive 46 per cent of their funding from the three levels of government.

“The government and the community have come to expect the maritime museum to soldier on and keep the doors open. … That’s extremely difficult,” he said.

The museum, which opened to the public in 1965, contains 40,000 photos, 30,000 artifacts, 30,000 ship plans and more than 1,000 pieces of art, making it the largest maritime museum in the country.

The museum’s lease expires in March 2014, and no decision has been made about whether to renew the lease or move, Fallon said. That makes it difficult for the museum to raise money from private donors, she said.

Coun. Chris Coleman, who served as an interim director of the museum in 2002, said city council has received a letter from the society asking for help and sympathizes with the society’s need for funds.

“They’re typical of a cultural society who are forced into a strange dog-and-pony show coming to municipalities asking for some support, and it takes more of their time and energy than I think is fair,” he said.

Coleman said the city offers about $20,000 a year in the form of a grant to the museum.

As for the future of the museum, Drent said the board of trustees remains committed to finding ways to improve the museum, whether it is renovating the building or moving to a different location.

In 2011, the society floated the idea of moving the museum off land and onto the water in Victoria’s harbour, which Drent said remains a viable option.

nwells@timescolonist.com

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