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Old Town to reopen at the Royal B.C. Museum in July — minus a few key features

When the exhibit reopens, some familiar exhibits will not be there, including the HMS Discovery ship re-creation, fish cannery, gold mine and farm
Royal B.C. Museum CEO Alicia Dubois takes the media on a tour of Old Town in February. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

A scaled-back Old Town is reopening in the Royal B.C. Museum at the end of July, and the rest of the gallery’s exhibits could be on display again as early as the start of next year.

Tourism Minister Lana Popham announced Tuesday that the popular exhibit will reopen July 29 after being closed for more than a year. 

“I know people miss it, are passionate about it and want access to it. We have heard you,” said Popham, who initially raised the possibility of reopening Old Town in February.

It’s the latest chapter in a bumpy process to plot the future of the museum, which saw the Old Town exhibit and First Peoples Gallery on the third floor closed Dec. 31, 2021, for “decolonization.”

Popham said that after being appointed minister late last year, she raised the prospect of reopening Old Town for this summer with the museum. “They came back with their work plan and it looked more like the end of July was reasonable, and so I said: ‘Great. Let’s do it.’ ”

Popham said she has received “hundreds and hundreds” of letters about the closure of Old Town.

The July 29 reopening of Old Town will not include the HMS Discovery ship re-creation, fish cannery, gold mine and farm, or the First Peoples Gallery, which is being used for engagement sessions with Indigenous communities.

It will, however, include Chinatown and the garage, train station, hotel, saloon, parlour, kitchen and print shop, as well as the Majestic Theatre, which will show historical footage of B.C. rather than Hollywood silent films.

A portion of the train exhibit had been dismantled but it will be back in action, Popham said. “That’s one of the things that parents with little kids have told me over and over again — that they can’t wait to get their kids into that train station.”

Information panels will be posted through the Old Town gallery with background and historical references, and visitors will be asked for feedback, Popham said.

The ship and other sidelined exhibits are expected to be reopened in a second phase that Popham would like to see that happen early in 2024, although she said she is waiting to hear from museum officials about what is a reasonable timeline.

“As Tourism minister, I would love to see it. The sooner the better.”

In 2022, then-premier John Horgan said the museum would be closed for eight years while a new building was constructed at a cost of $789 million, triggering a public outcry that ultimately saw that plan scrapped.

An extensive public consultation program on the museum’s future was later announced. Now underway, it’s expected to be carried out over a number of years.

The province gave the museum $1 million for the engagement process and those funds are also being used reopen the third floor, said Popham, who hopes people will take out memberships.

“There are just lots of great exhibits coming through. It is going to be a community gathering place once again.”

In a statement Tuesday, chief executive Alicia Dubois said the museum is “committed to increasing inclusivity and accessibility to the museum through extensive engagement and co-creation of exhibits with communities, and inviting people back into this space allows further opportunities to do that.”

Peter Milobar, BC United Opposition finance critic, said it’s good to see that Old Town will be “somewhat accessible for people,” adding: “It’s a shame what the government has done to this museum over the last two years.”

“Not one stick of meaningful work has been done in that building and magically we are back to Old Town reopening, so I think they have a lot of answering to do,” said Milobar, noting the museum used to attract about 800,000 people annually.

Business and tourism leaders say they are thrilled to hear that Old Town will be open again.

“We are just grateful that they have made a smart decision,” said Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria. “It’s more choice for our visitors.”

Bruce Williams, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, and Jeff Bray, chief executive of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, called the announcement great news, saying the museum has always been a favourite destination for locals and tourists.

The facility is anticipating strong attendance, a museum official said. In addition to Old Town, it’s offering four exhibits at the same time: Dinosaurs of B.C., Sacred Journey, Angkor, the Lost Empire of Cambodia, and SUE: the T. Rex Experience.

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