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Comment: Museum replacement has been a long time coming

​​​​​​​A commentary by the former deputy CEO and vice-president of the Royal B.C. Museum Corp., 2003-2018.
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The Royal B.C. Museum has been planning for a major overhaul for years, so criticisms of a "rushed" renovation are incorrect, Angela Williams writes. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

In 1886, the Royal B.C. Museum was created, and the B.C. Archives in 1894. The museum was located first in the Bird Cages, then moved for a short time to Bastion Square, then to the west wing of the legislature until a new building for the museum was created as a centennial project in 1967, with a new building for the archives following shortly thereafter.

In 2003, after the core review by the B.C. Liberal government of the day, the Royal B.C. Museum became a Crown corporation, transitioning itself from core government to an entity that included both the B.C. Archives and the Royal B.C. Museum, as well as oversight of Wawadit’la Mungo Martin House, St. Ann’s Schoolhouse, Helmcken House and the Netherlands Centennial Carillon.

The Royal B.C. Museum and B.C. Archives are located on the unceded territories of the ­Lekwungen (Songhees and Xwsepsum Nations).

Over the past 19 years, both the Liberal and NDP governments have provided direction to the Royal B.C. Museum Corp. to pursue renewal and redevelopment on its site. These directions from government can be viewed at the Royal B.C. Museum’s ­website, with the first mention of redevelopment beginning with the 2005-06 Service Plan during the Liberal government’s tenure.

In 2011, the Royal B.C. Museum achieved rezoning on its site, allowing for a substantial new building complex and amalgamating what was at the time 29 single family lots into a comprehensive development zone. This zone information can be found on the City of Victoria’s website.

This is important because multiple levels of government have long been aware of and have encouraged the Royal B.C. Museum to pursue redevelopment on its site, to address a number of longstanding issues with its infrastructure, including seismic safety and a lack of accessibility; and also to continue to be a driver for tourism.

During that time, numerous papers were written, designs proposed, and road trips and presentations were made locally and across the province to seek input from British Columbians about their thoughts about the museum and archives’ future. Capital projects were also undertaken — in the range of $20 million, which were mostly invisible to the public and ­simply provided more time before more extreme ­ repair/renovate/replace ­measures needed to be taken.

I wrote many of those papers and briefing notes, and made those presentations to ­politicians at all levels, the ­business ­community, active donors and potential donors, partners, Indigenous leaders and to people from around the province before I retired in 2018.

To suggest that the decision to provide funding for the Royal B.C. Museum’s redevelopment is “recent” and without consultation does a disservice to the many professionals and people in communities around B.C. who have provided their input and who have created detailed reports and analysis regarding possible options for this NDP government and the previous Liberal government in order for them to make informed decisions.

British Columbians deserve family doctors, hospitals, education and a solution to the opioid crisis and homelessness. The government must fund these important initiatives and address these societal issues by providing ongoing year-over-year operational funds associated with these public priorities.

However, to suggest that this is an “either/or” situation does not adequately acknowledge the responsibility for governments to also provide safe access to public buildings and to invest in infrastructure for future ­generations. These capital investments ensure society continues to modernize and move forward and are repayable over time as a one-time capital (not ongoing) expenditure.

I encourage everyone who has an opinion on this matter to familiarize themselves with the Royal B.C. Museum’s service plans and annual reports, to ­better understand the risks to the human and natural history collections of British Columbia and the lack of representation in the museum galleries.

The Royal B.C. Museum and B.C. Archives is home to thousands of spectacular photographs, films, recordings and objects showcasing the many Indigenous cultures in B.C. These items represent up to 10,000 years of history from across the province, celebrating the diversity and resilience of Indigenous peoples. This is your museum and archives, holding more than seven million objects, specimens and archives that document the human and natural history of British Columbia.

After more than 19 years of active consultation, research, analysis and preparation, the organization has reached a point where the structural deficiencies within the buildings can no longer be ignored or patched over, and the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities, the lack of representation of Indigenous peoples in the modern context, and the need to include the voices and experiences of other unrepresented minority groups must be addressed.

An excellent report underlying this is “Indigenous Voices on Modernization, 2019,” available as a PDF on the museum’s ­website, royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.

In the meantime, if you really do value arts and culture in ­British Columbia, show some love to your local small museums and archives, especially the heritage properties throughout the province.

Visit the Royal B.C. Museum’s wonderful Learning Portal, and take in the travelling exhibitions when they appear in your community. In pre-COVID times, almost one million people visited the museum, archives and Imax every year. On a busy day in the summer, upward of 4,000 people could be in the building throughout the course of the day.

If only a fraction of those ­people visited local properties while the museum is ­undergoing its transformation — local properties such as Point Ellice House, Emily Carr House, ­Craigdarroch Castle, ­Wentworth Villa, the Robert Bateman ­Gallery, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the Maritime Museum of B.C., the Victoria Bug Zoo, Dino Lab and Miniature World — what a difference you could make to those B.C. historical properties as well.

Studies have shown that arts and culture play a vibrant and important role in a healthy society. I look forward to what the new CEO, the staff, volunteers, Indigenous partners and the board of the Royal B.C. Museum will create for all of us.

Yes, $800 million is a lot of money for new arts and culture infrastructure. But if not now, then when?

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