Closing of museum’s research area irks archive group

The Royal B.C. Museum will not reopen certain areas of its building, including the B.C. Archives Reference Room, until further notice, citing the health and safety of its staff and visitors.

But that timeline has been deemed too vague by the Friends of the B.C. Archives, a non-profit society whose roughly 200 members use the provincial archives for research.

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The museum, which has been closed since March 17, will reopen a portion of the building on June 19, the first step in a staged approach that will return the museum galleries to full operation by Sept. 7.

However, the Reference Room, where the public can search through catalogues, browse through printed records, make copies of images and read microfilmed records and newspapers, will likely be closed until 2021, “at which time it will open to researchers with an appointment system,” the museum says on its website.

In the meantime, it says, it will provide digital services “where feasible.”

Friends board president Kelly Black said the museum’s operators are not doing enough to facilitate the Reference Room’s reopening, nor have they consulted with stakeholders in a timely manner.

The health and safety of staff and users should be the No. 1 priority, he said, “but given where British Columbia is at in its reopening plan, we feel that it is reasonable for the B.C. Archives to come up with a phased and incremental plan now.”

The Friends of the B.C. Archives often works closely with the museum, but Black said he was not aware of the decision to keep the reference room closed until a May 27 Times Colonist story outlined the reopening plan.

He said David Alexander, acting head of archives for the museum, did not respond to the Friends’ emails regarding the Reference Room reopening until after the Times Colonist story.

“Basically, we’ve been offered vague generalities about how things may proceed. We have not received any timelines or suggestions about what might be coming,” Black said.

Museum CEO Jack Lohman said in a written response to the Times Colonist that the archives will “remain open to serve clients as we have throughout the pandemic. Researchers are welcome to consult online and connect with staff digitally.”

Lohman said the museum had “clearly communicated” to the Friends that it would share its draft plan when it was “closer to a state of completion.”

That decision was labelled “unacceptable” by the British Columbia Historical Federation, which posted an open letter addressed to Lohman and B.C. Premier John Horgan on its website Wednesday. Black said many user groups are affected by the closure, from casual to professional researchers.

Lohman said both the closure and reopening plans for the museum were made in consultation with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. The museum’s reopening plans follow the guidelines of provincial public-health authorities and WorkSafe B.C., and have been accepted by the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union and the museum’s board of directors, he said.

Black said he did not understand why a reopening plan for the Reference Room was not made simultaneously. “That is not sufficient, given the importance of the provincial archives to the people of British Columbia.”

Lohman said he has good reason to be cautious. “The Reference Room is very different from, say, the museum galleries, where we can ensure visitors are unable to touch exhibits. In the Reference Room, researchers are there precisely because they need to scrutinize archival records in detail and in-person, and a single researcher might touch as many as hundreds of archival records during a single visit.”

Staff has not determined where and how these valuable materials, once touched, could be placed in quarantine after use, he added.

Black said archives across North America — including the City of Vancouver Archives and the Saanich Pioneers’ Society Museum and Archives — have been reopening with a by-appointment model, as new safety measures to deal with COVID-19 are created.

Lohman, on the other hand, was told by a representative from Harvard University Archives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that the school’s repository of university records, papers and photos dating back to 1636 will not be opening to researchers in the near future. “We are discussing reopening with other significant libraries and archives and following a similar approach,” he said.

Black said the B.C. Archives Reference Room could be compared with branches of the Greater Victoria Public Library. The GVPL announced May 29 that it will begin reintroducing service, as per WorkSafe B.C. guidelines, at various branches starting in late June. Black said similar policies and procedures are viable options.

“There are many examples out there right now of archives reopening in various capacities, reflective of the public-health directives in their various regions.”

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