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BC Museum rebuild on pause, seeking more public input

Wednesday June 22, 2022 | VICTORIA, BC

by Mary P Brooke | Island Social Trends

The idea of rebuilding the Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria had quickly become a political football over the past 40 days.

Today Premier John Horgan said his government is halting plans announced last month to rebuild the Royal British Columbia Museum.

The museum will remain open to visitors. The Royal BC Museum will now lead a broad public engagement to consider all options for the future of the museum.

Clearly some updating of how BC’s historical artifacts are preserved and displayed is required. The big-bang museum rebuild is for now not the way to do that.

Communications shortfall:

Despite protestations that the museum rebuild was mentioned in two BC Throne Speeches (as if that should be enough to inform the public), Horgan realizes now that the public felt left out of the plans for conserving BC heritage as held at the museum.

premier, john horgan
BC Premier John Horgan says the buck stops with him as to proceeding with the museum project without sufficient public input. [June 22, 2022]

There is easily fault laid at the feet of professional communications within government for not keeping an eye on how this was rolling out.

It’s a perfect example of how any government gets immersed in its own work and business, and — especially for large complex projects with input from sector and industry experts — moves along with good intention but within its own walls.

Horgan said today that he’d received no negative commentary from his own Cabinet or government staff about proceeding with the museum rebuild, prior to the public disaster that has happened around this announcement.

Seismic event would produce significant loss:

The museum building was built long ago on landfill, as were the BC Parliament Buildings.

The Royal BC Museum board has for years been advising the government that a seismic event would likely lead to the loss of precious artifacts, many of which are stored in the basement and have not seen the light of day for decades.

That includes the world’s largest collection of Emily Carr paintings.

That scenario was explained to media by government staffers in a media session about the BC Museum in May.

museum, timeline
All of this now on hold (as of June 22, 2022): Downtown building replacement, temporary storage in North Saanich, and a new collections building now under construction in Colwood. [BC Govt – May 25, 2022]

Sidestepping political pitfalls:

Political parties — particularly the BC Liberals — have been trying to build momentum around the public’s negative response to the museum rebuild (which has already been budgeted for, up to $1 billion dollars over a 10-year construction period).

royal bc museum
Royal BC Museum

But even members of his own party and supporters in the broader community have said Horgan’s enthusiasm for this project is misplaced at a time when people are concerned in particular about the economy and the cost of living.

Today the BC Greens say that the “government made the right call, but the damage is already done”. BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau says it shows how “out of touch” the BC NDP is. But she commends Horgan for admitting when his government was wrong. BC Green MLA Adam Olsen said he feels the museum plan “was not well thought out”.

sonia furstenau
BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau {File: June 9, 2022]

Rethinking the long-term plan:

“I always try to act in the best interests of British Columbians,” said Premier John Horgan. “That involves listening. That also means taking responsibility when you make the wrong call. Over the past few weeks, we listened to British Columbians who have made it clear they want the Royal BC Museum to remain open while we rethink our long-term plans to protect its priceless artifacts. That is exactly what we are going to do.”

melanie mark, bc
Melanie Mark, Minister of Tourism, Art, Culture and Sport

Horgan today said all the political blame falls on himself as the head of government. He noted that two of his cabinet ministers — Lisa Beare and then Melanie Mark — have been responsible for the museum file. But to be fair, neither of those ministers are fully high profile in the general public view, and would have taken their marching orders on this file from higher up.

Today in a news release Melanie Mark, Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, said: “Museum leadership will undertake a broad public engagement to determine our next steps. At the end of the day, this museum belongs to the people of British Columbia, and their voices will determine its future.” Last month she admitted that her “Friday the 13th” rollout failed to suitably inform or excite the public.

Further public engagement:

Horgan mused today that perhaps ‘clicks’ and other ways of gauging the effectiveness of public input are insufficient or not well understood. One positive outcome of this ‘museum boondoggle’ could be the surfacing of a realization that online surveys, social media and other remote means of public input (like Zoom or even email) are insufficient or produce misleading results when it comes to the true feelings of the majority of the population.

langford, canada day, 2022

Not everyone engages in online public participation. Some demographics are interested in museums and heritage, others not so much.

Public engagement will seek input on what British Columbians want to see in a modernized museum experience. It will also address structural and safety issues identified with the current buildings.

The structure, timeline and scope of the public engagement will be determined by the museum board with a view to connecting with the broadest possible range of British Columbians, including First Nations, business groups, members of the public and other stakeholders.

Collections building construction in Colwood continues:

Construction of a new Collections and Research Building in Colwood will continue. Once it is complete (expected in 2025), museum artifacts will be safely relocated there.

Today Horgan pointed out that digitizing artifacts as they are packed and relocated will be a prime opportunity to capture details about each artifacts and to enable showcasing them to the world online.

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===== RELATED:

New BC Museum has many roads to take (May 25, 2022)