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Comment: A new and modern Royal B.C. Museum is long overdue

Melanie Mark, Hli Haykwhl Ẃii X̱sgaak, is B.C.’s minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport, responsible for the RBCM. She is the only First Nations woman to be elected as an MLA and appointed to cabinet.
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A Nisgaա Chief is depicted at the First Peoples Gallery at the Royal B.C. Museum. Behind him is a ceremonial screen depicting a supernatural ancestor. ROYAL B.C. MUSEUM

The Royal B.C. Museum is one of our province’s greatest cultural icons and most important institutions. It is curated and nurtured by outstanding experts and visited and beloved by hundreds of thousands of people each year both locally and internationally.

The museum has served British Columbians and visitors alike for 135 years. Core exhibitions like Old Town and the First Peoples Gallery have been imprinted on the memories of multiple generations of British Columbian children, including my own daughters.

The exhibits have sparked the imagination of countless people, teleporting us to various moments of our province’s past, and as adults, bringing us back to when we first looked up at the rows of totems or the towering mammoth.

Ensuring that future generations have access to these transformative experiences is a deeply held responsibility for me and for Premier John Horgan. While the museum has been at its current location since 1967, it’s been decades since it last saw any major repairs, renovations or upgrades.

The museum’s downtown facilities encompass five buildings over two hectares, curating everything from research to ­restoration to repatriation.

Sadly, the facilities are at the end of their useful life. They are seismically at risk and are vulnerable to damage. In the event of a major flood, artifacts and irreplaceable parts of B.C.’s history could be damaged and lost forever.

The building materials used do not meet modern safety standards. Exhibits like Old Town are full of asbestos. As well, the building fails to meet today’s accessibility standards, denying many people the ability to experience the museum.

There are seven million objects under our stewardship at the Royal B.C. Museum. Laid end to end, the total length of archival records would span 27 kilometres. Carrying on ­without major changes poses a serious risk to our collective ­history and precious artifacts.

That’s why after decades of neglect, our government made a commitment in the Speech from the Throne in 2019 and 2020 to protect our collective heritage and give the museum the respect it deserves. In 2019, we engaged the public about what a ­reimagined Royal B.C. Museum could look like.

We heard that British Columbians want us to make changes that will include the voices and experiences of the communities and people in British ­Columbia. People want dynamic and ­interactive exhibits, a museum that builds relationships with a wide range of communities, that is a place of learning and that ­cultivates our living history.

I think most people in B.C. would agree with the need to fully and accurately reflect our province’s history. As our province’s flagship historical centre, the Royal B.C. Museum has a duty to curate the past with an equal responsibility to ­accurately reflect a timeline of our shared history.

We must take action now. A new and modern museum is long overdue, for the safety of all visitors, to remove barriers so everyone can access it and to keep our irreplaceable ­collections safe. Continuing on without a major redevelopment is not an option for anyone serious about the stewardship of B.C.’s history and culture.

Our goal is to build a state-of-the-art facility that provides an educational and cultural legacy for the province while at the same time brings significant economic and social benefits to the region.

A new Royal B.C. Museum will build upon the foundation the world-class museum has been known as, with a facility that reflects modern safety, environmental and accessibility standards and reflects a broader representation of the many ­people, events and cultures that are part of British Columbia’s rich and living history.

A business case has been developed and in the coming months, we will bring forward all aspects of the plan for the new museum, including the ­project’s scope and budget. I look forward to announcing next steps.

I know people are ­passion­ate about their museum. I have heard the varying views British Columbians have expressed about the future embodiment of our past. I also want it to be very clear, not one of our histories will be erased or destroyed.

As we move forward, we want to keep hearing from people and robust community engagement, including continuing our work with the local First Nations, will continue to inform the ­modernization of the museum. Our exhibits will continue to tell the story of our past, just as they have done for decades. But now, we’ll have the opportunity to ensure everyone, both digitally and in person, is included and everyone can experience those stories.

A new state-of-the-art Royal B.C. Museum legacy will be built as a renewed inheritance for generations to come.

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