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Comment: Royal B.C. Museum plan is a cultural investment worth making

​​​​​​​A commentary by a former museum director who has served on the board of UNESCO’s International Council for Museums and as president of the Commonwealth Museums Association.
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The lobby of the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Recent news items, letters and commentaries have spoken of a new Royal B.C Museum, reconciliation, misplaced spending priorities, family doctors and the like.

Whoa! Calm down. Push the rhetoric stop-buttons.

For once, residents of Victoria have on offer a grand idea, an inspirational project, backed by some serious bucks. And, wonder of wonders, it is not a grandiose scheme cooked up by a consortium of property development companies that promises to transform swaths of our urban landscape for good and betterment of all, and particularly their pocketbooks, but rather it is a cultural facility for the province.

Instead of rushing to microphones for political knee-jerk reactions, or making passionate pleas for a myriad of other agendas, let’s put this in context.

The project cost is about $800 million, about $200 million per year over the life of the project. Last time I checked this was, overall, less than the cost of a couple of F-35 jet fighters, or about 15 kilometres of highway plus a couple of interchanges per year.

And while an economic business case can, no doubt, be worked up, we are talking about an investment intended to put the cultural heritage of the province on a new footing for the next 100 years or more. This is farsighted, ambitious and requires a leap of faith.

Like most cultural investments, be they Commonwealth or Olympic Games, art galleries or museums, such projects often deemed “non-essential” investments are fraught with acrimonious debate, political scoring, finger-pointing and procrastinations until the euphoria of opening day when everyone wants to take credit.

This is the history of Royal B.C. Museum itself. Founded in 1886 in one of the Bird Cages, as the old James Bay Colonial Administration Building was called, the museum had to wait until 1896 for a secure home.

Even this was a controversial last-minute decision by the government of the day to repurposing the east wing of newly constructed Parliament Buildings. The architect, F.M. Rattenbury, was furious as he did not deem this a proper museum.

Ever the visionary, he finally got to add a purpose-built library and archives to the Parliament Buildings 15 years later, but his scheme to incorporate the museum collapsed amid the usual endless disputes about flawed estimates and cost overruns, then evaporated with budget restraints prompted by the First World War.

The current buildings began with an announcement by Premier W.A.C. Bennett in 1959. And indeed, the size and scope of his vision left locals aghast.

Against an ensuing backdrop of continual political and public debates about (guess) over-spending and cost-cutting, planning and construction took 10 years. Similar to the current project timeline.

At one point the project remained a hole in the ground for a couple of years. And at opening day on August 16, 1968, exhibits were temporary and sparse. It took another 20 years to complete them.

Given the wealth of the province and population of Victoria in 1959, the construction cost of $10 million then probably equals the outlay anticipated for the new facilities today, which includes exhibits.

I began my museum career working at the Provincial Museum in the 1970s. From day one, that hole in the ground covered by the current building complex and plaza caused problems.

Flooding of the underground storage vaults and workshops was endemic. There were load-bearing issues with the exhibition floors as construction began on the permanent exhibit systems.

But an inherent vice in the construction of the entire complex, which involved asbestos insulation and fire retardant, has never been fully resolved despite millions spent on various attempts at remediation over the years. Any new construction will have to involve filling in the below sea-level hole and careful deconstruction.

But in retrospect, we can appreciate that both as a facility and a public cultural enterprise, the Royal B.C. Museum of 1959-68 was date-stamped.

First, the separation of “curatorial tower” from exhibition hall, while functionally rational, created two cultures separating the visitor services and public from the academics and scientists in the tower protecting their collections.

Administration was lodged in an exhibit hall along with exhibition preparators, educators, tour guides, maintenance and security staff.

Gradually they were to become two solitudes prompting numerous and ongoing structural reorganizations. But ultimately these tensions were never resolved.

The decision to embrace the new concept of narrative immersion exhibits and engage the talented professional exhibit designer Jean Jaques Andre produced results that were wildly successful with the visiting public. It earned the museum immediate international credentials. By the late 1970s the museum welcomed over a million visitors per year, nearly 25 per cent more than the average of recent times.

Less appreciated is the fact that early reticence on the part of the professional curatorial staff to engage in exhibition production was finally resolved with the creation of a new “History” division, whose first task was to assemble a collection to illustrate the story line of the exhibit.

This was in contrast to First Peoples Gallery. The exhibit was built from existing collections acquired over several generations of curators with a special interest in the Indigenous cultures of northern coastal First Nations.

By definition it was not inclusive, particularly of local Lekwungen-speaking people. And of course, given the professional training of its curators, it was an anthropological exhibit presenting First Nations cultures as frozen-in-time artifacts rather than living entities comprising real people.

Current disclaimers to the contrary, the exhibits were, however, developed with extensive consultations with those First Nations. And those exhibit halls occupy about a third of the permanent exhibition space.

Somewhere between these two examples, the natural history exhibits, which were internationally pioneering in their day, were intended literally as editorials warning of the implications of environmental degradation.

These exhibits predated by several decades our full awareness of the climate crisis we now face. Unsurprisingly, the then-museum director, Dr. Bristol Foster, was a pioneering British Columbia biologist and conservationist.

This aside, despite the high attraction value of immersion narrative exhibits, they contain the seeds of their own destruction. And as the controversies here and across Canada over the past few years illustrate, the special interests and biases of their time and authors is revealed in ever higher profile. They don’t wear well.

Premier John Horgan’s announcement of a new museum actually demonstrated a keen understanding of the core dilemma facing Canadian culture today, as we move from an age of “approved cultural discourse” to “inclusive cultural discourse.”

This is mission-critical for a country and a society that has decided to base its future on mass in-migration. Canada today, as will become increasing so in the future, is a deep-layered accretion of people and cultures. These voices and their stories demand to be included and heard.

The time-line appended to the premier’s announcement reveals a strategy to build an institution to address this new reality, along with ample opportunity for ongoing local and province-wide community discussion to achieve this in a collaborative manner.

What is not yet clear is the extent of the massive changes to the institution this will require: from democratization of the board of directors to a staff that reflect current demographics and mechanisms to reach parts of society that need cultural inclusion.

The organization of collections, and particularly exhibitions, based on historic academic disciplines is long gone. But it will take some effort to reimagine our cultural identities as founded on a global environmental history, now sharing a local natural, social and cultural ecology in a landscape shaped by First Nations and constructed within a history of multiple waves of settlement.

It might take some courage, for instance, to reinstate free entry for all, and like other major European museums charge only for special events or so called “blockbuster” exhibits.

A new museum could be conceived as a community hub with a cluster of other services. The Natural History Museum in London offers a coffee bar on each floor. You can take family picnics to the Tate.

Like most world-class major urban museums today, the RBCM has relocated its collection storage to cheaper real estate in the suburbs so as to monetize its more valuable core property holdings, or expand onto them.

All this however implies a new role for curators: visually documenting their collections, at least 3-D for the artifacts, and digitizing the research files for universal online public access.

This would allow for duplications across institutions to be eliminated and, where appropriate, the process of repatriation to be expanded in scope. It would not only include First Nations, but other groups that can demonstrate capacity and have an interest in owning and directly caring for their material heritage.

Exhibit halls might contain only major or sample reference collections for public viewing. The UBC Museum of Anthropology has already pioneered the concept of “accessible storage.”

Responsibility for narrative or story-line immersive exhibitions can then be turned over to community-based guest curators allowing a multiplicity of stories told by those who own them. And as the technology of the metaverse unfolds, opportunities for entirely new visitor experiences are emerging as we speak.

Instead of wasting time bickering and whining, let’s start those discussions now.

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