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Public doesn't yet understand reasons for $789M museum project, says premier; details next week

”I don’t believe that the public has had a chance to fully understand how we got here,” the premier said. “I think the shock of an announcement that was not characterized appropriately has led to some of the hard feelings.”
Premier John Horgan at a press conference at the legislature on Thursday. via GOVERNMENT OF B.C. May 19, 2022

Premier John Horgan says he has profound regret that plans for a new Royal B.C. Museum have landed with such a thud and understands the enormous pressures record-high gas prices and inflation are putting on B.C. residents.

“I very much regret that the jewel of our collective history, the Royal B.C. Museum, has become a political football,” he said Thursday. “It certainly was not our intention to appear to be tone deaf to the challenges British Columbians are facing.”

Horgan said he understands the stress affordability issues are placing on family budgets. While it may seem like the announcement came out of the blue, in reality the Royal B.C. Museum “has been in a difficult position for coming on two decades” with proposals for its modernization reviewed for the past five years.

The project was announced last Friday with a $789-million price tag but few specifics.

Since then, Horgan and Culture Minister Melanie Mark have been under heavy fire from the Opposition Liberals and the public about the timing and need for a new facility. The province is facing a crisis in health care with a family-doctor shortage, an affordability crunch in housing, and rising gas and food prices, and many schools across the province require seismic work.

The museum redevelopment was framed largely as a reconciliation project when it was announced. It has faced accusations of racism and discrimination. Last year, the museum announced that some exhibits would be dismantled to help “decolonize” the galleries.

With critics asking why the building isn’t being renovated instead of torn down, the government this week pointed to seismic instability and hazardous materials such as asbestos in the building, which opened in August 1968.

Opposition members have called it a “vanity project” and highlighted a slew of pressing issues that need funding: the doctor shortage, the opioid crisis, and all manner of infrastructure needs.

At a Thursday press conference with Energy Minister Bruce Ralston to introduce a new oil and gas royalty system, the museum was the first topic raised by reporters.

Horgan deflected when asked if he would pause or reconsider the project and focused on the need to preserve the seven million items in the museum’s collection.

Questioned about the need for seismic upgrades at the B.C. legislature and about 260 schools, Horgan said the museum hosts thousands of tourists and B.C. residents — including schoolchildren — each year.

Beyond the fact that modern standards for access haven’t been met, he said, there are physical, sensory and cultural barriers, and some archives are being stored below sea level — though archival problems are already being addressed with a $224-million facility being built in Colwood.

”I don’t believe that the public has had a chance to fully understand how we got here,” Horgan said. “I think the shock of an announcement that was not characterized appropriately has led to some of the hard feelings.”

The premier said a full technical briefing on the building’s issues and the project business plan will be shared next week.

Senior government officials are to provide a technical briefing on Wednesday and then make the information public, Mark said in a statement, citing the “complex nature of this project.”

She said there has been extensive work over the past decade to “investigate the most cost-effective and efficient way to modernize the museum and protect the province’s collective history.”

Horgan agreed, saying: “The case is so compelling, I think British Columbians deserve to have a look at it before we get into the procurement process.”

In 2006, the governing B.C. Liberals were advised that there were seismic issues and challenges with the collections and they “punted the ball down the field for a time,” Horgan said, though it was a Liberal finance minister who directed the museum administration to come back with a plan.

The province did its due diligence, reviewing those proposals for five years, he said.

The tourism industry has been hit harder than any other industry in British Columbia during the pandemic, Horgan said. And while the museum has historically been a magnet for tourists, tourism organizations are excited about the potential once the doors reopen, he said.

The museum will close on Sept. 6 and is expected to reopen in a new building in 2030.

B.C. Archives services will not be disrupted and will remain open at the downtown site until it moves to its new permanent home in Colwood in 2025. Imax Victoria, the museum gift shop and food trucks will stay open through early 2023.

— With a file from Darron Kloster