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New digs: $789-million complex to replace Royal B.C. Museum

The current Belleville Street museum is to close Sept. 6 and will be torn down. A new complex will be built and is to open in 2030

The Royal British Columbia Museum — a destination for nearly one million tourists and locals every year — will be closed in September and torn down, with plans to replace it with a new facility by 2030.

Fifty-four years after the museum complex opened as a Centennial project, the province announced Friday it will spend $789 million to build a replacement. Combined with the $224-million archives and collections building currently being designed for Colwood’s Royal Bay neighbourhood, the total price tag is $1 billion, which Premier John Horgan called the most ­significant cultural investment in British Columbia’s history.

The five-building museum complex, spread over five acres, has not seen any ­significant renovations in ­decades. It’s ­considered outdated, ­insufficiently accessible and filled with asbestos, and officials say it’s putting the collections and the people who visit and work there at risk.

Late last year, the museum sparked a public outcry when it closed its pioneer and First ­Peoples exhibits, saying it needed to “decolonize” its ­exhibits and develop new ­displays featuring “forgotten” minorities who also helped build the province.

“For decades, people from British Columbia and around the globe have come to the Royal B.C. Museum to learn about our special corner of the world. For just as long, the stories told here have failed to accurately reflect our colonial history or include everyone, and priceless ­collections are now being put at risk in an aging building,” ­Horgan said at Friday’s announcement at the museum.

“That’s why we are making this historic investment to build a safer, more inclusive and accessible modern building. Once complete, the new museum will be a flagship destination for tourism and a place where generations to come will learn about the richness and diversity of B.C.’s history.”

The museum will close for good on Sept. 6. The B.C. Archives will remain open at the downtown site until it moves to a new permanent home at the collections and research building in Colwood 2025. Imax Victoria, the museum’s gift shop and the food trucks located at the museum will stay open through early 2023.

The museum’s closing will hit tourism hard over the next decade, said Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria.

He said the museum has always been the heavyweight attraction when it comes to national and international companies booking ticketed tours of the city.

“Our eyes are wide open on the medium and long-term impact here,” said Nursey, noting high-spending international travellers book visits though touring companies that rely on major attractions to flesh out itineraries.

Without the museum, Nursey said they will “lean on” reliables like Butchart Gardens, Craigdarroch Castle and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria — as well as newer options such as Explore Songhees, the Malahat Skywalk and agri-tourism on the Saanich Peninsula.

“We’ll try to mitigate the challenges,” he said, adding in the long term, a modern museum will be beneficial. “We saw this in Vancouver when they were building the convention centre and Canada Line … when they were completed, things were better.”

Richard Porges, president and CEO of Destination British Columbia, concurred, saying a new museum will help B.C. vie for visitors in an “increasingly competitive” travel marketplace.

Tourism minister Melanie Mark said the museum will continue to reach people across the province with travelling exhibitions, regional satellite displays and an interactive walking tour in Victoria. Museum events, community programs and learning experiences will also be expanded throughout the province.

Colwood Mayor Rob Martin said the city and museum are in discussions about the amount of public space that will be available at the new archives and research centre in Royal Bay — up to 30,000 square feet may become available for displays and visitors when the project is complete in 2025.

Mark said the new building using B.C.-made mass timber will be a museum for the next generation, saying government, the museum board and staff, along with First Nations, are “turning the walls inside out to create a flagship historical centre, inclusive of all the stories of the people who have shaped B.C.”

“Our partnership with the local First Nations to guide us to this stage is truly reconciliation in action,” she said. “From the exhibits and programs to the employees and building itself, we are bringing the people’s museum into the 21st century.”

Mark said the new museum will reflect consultations with British Columbians and Indigenous communities. Existing cultural displays and content will tell B.C.’s history in a respectful way, she said, with broader perspectives and inclusivity, including the voices and experiences of all communities.

Horgan added: “Nothing will be erased. Everyone will be represented.”

Esquimalt chief Rob Thomas said First Nations people are finally “being heard and seen and appreciated for our culture and history … and that does not go unnoticed with our people.”

Florence Dick of the Esquimalt Nation, part of the museum committee on modernization, said in an interview she will be happy to see the old building come down and be replaced by a fresh space where First Nations histories can be heard and seen.

In the meantime, new museum CEO Alicia Dubois said many of the artifacts are being prepared for long-term storage, including those from the closed third floor.

The museum has more than seven million pieces in its collection. Much of it will go to a massive warehouse on Victoria International Airport lands, Dubois said. Under a long-term lease deal, the space will be fitted with climate-controlled spaces to protect the artifacts.

The 27-metre-tall Netherlands Carillon, a gift from B.C.’s Dutch community to honour Canada’s Centennial and an anchor of the museum on Belleville Street, will likely be dismantled during construction, but will return to the new museum, said Dubois.

Mark said naming the new museum — and possibly dropping the word Royal — will be part of discussions going forward.

Dubois also said repatriation of artifacts to First Nations will continue, although a shortage of staff to handle dozens of requests is hampering progress.

The province said the new museum project is expected to support more than 1,950 direct construction jobs, as well as more than 1,050 associated jobs.

History of the RBCM

The museum was founded in 1886 and housed in a single room adjoining the provincial secretary’s office in the Capitol Building. The province has collected archival records since 1894, preserved by the ­Legislative Library.

Over the next 12 years, the museum was relocated twice, first to the former Supreme Court building, and then in 1898, to the east wing of the newly constructed legislative buildings.

In 1941, six vacant lots at the corner of Belleville and Douglas Streets were transformed into ­Thunderbird Park, where totem poles from the museum’s collection were displayed. In 1963, Premier W.A.C. Bennett announced plans to build a new museum and archives on the site as a Canadian ­Centennial project.

The Queen Mother dedicated the cornerstone in 1966 and, on Aug. 16, 1968 after delays due a construction strike, the current museum was opened to the public.

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