Palmer: Stop work order notwithstanding, museum will never be the same

Opinion: 40 days ago, replacing museum was a matter of safety for kids. Today, it’s ‘kids, come on down’

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VICTORIA — When Premier John Horgan cancelled the Sept. 6 closure of the Royal B.C. Museum this week, he suggested it meant business as usual for the beloved institution.

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“The museum will remain open in the fall, indefinitely going forward,” Horgan told reporters. “That includes the IMAX theatre, the gift shop and the ever-important food trucks will continue to operate in and around the RBCM.”

Good news on Imax. The government paid $4.3 million to buy the theatre from the U.S. leaseholder two years ago, then targeted it for closure in this year’s business plan. Encouraging that the museum will get some use of it along with the gift shop and the food trucks.

Not surprising that Horgan didn’t mention the museum exhibits. Many of the ones with a historical theme were closed at the beginning of the year and ticketed for removal.

The premier played down that aspect of the timeline, focusing instead on his May 13 announcement that the entire facility would be replaced.

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“At no time has sober second thought happened so quickly,” he said. “It’s been 40 days. …That’s enough for rains and an ark.”

Alas for premier Noah’s biblical reference, the New Democrats launched the museum makeover last fall.

“The Royal B.C. Museum announced today that it will begin closing sections of the third floor to start the process of decolonization in these galleries, in response to the call to action from Indigenous leaders to increase cultural safety and ensure the museum is a welcome place for everyone,” said the Nov. 3 news release.

“Our government’s commitment to truth and reconciliation demands that we diversify and decolonize the way we share the history of B.C.,” added Tourism Minister Melanie Mark.

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“For too long, museums have been colonial institutions that exclude others from telling their own stories. We have an opportunity to turn the museum inside out, and it starts here, now, on the museum’s third floor.”

Banishing the colonial legacy was the only reason given for the removal at the time, though lately Mark downplays that goal.

“I don’t believe I use the word decolonize,” she claimed recently.

With the decolonizing drive well under way, the third floor of the museum is closed and exhibits like Old Town are gone or going.

Reflecting the diminished state of the remaining exhibits – mostly on the natural history floor — visitors are asked to pay a mere $5 for entry.

The nearby Victoria Bug Zoo is charging $16 for admission, “an indication of where the once-revered RBCM ranks,” as Les Leyne, columnist for the Victoria Times Colonist, put it this week.

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Last month, Horgan characterized the museum as a dumping ground for unwanted visitors: “I sent people I didn’t want to visit there when they came to town.”

This week, he continued to disparage the exhibits his government is consigning to the ash heap of history.

“We did start with the Old Town which, of course … These were dioramas that were created in the ’60s and ’70s, and very much outdated.

“If you want to see an old town, take a trip to Barkerville or Fort Steele.”

The vacated space will “now be available for new exhibits as the museum begins its engagement process,” said Horgan.

He further suggested that some of the estimated seven million items now in museum storage could be put on display.

“Some of them have not seen the light of day for generations,” he said.

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The premier showed similar flexibility when asked about the seismic risk at the existing museum, something the New Democrats repeatedly flagged when justifying their plan to close the place and demolish it.

Horgan now says the main building “is seismically challenged but it’s no more today than it was yesterday.

“Hundreds of thousands of kids have been entertained and informed by going through the various exhibits over many, many decades, myself included.”

Case study in situational ethics:

Before this week’s announcement, critics of the plan were accused of putting children at risk in the event of an earthquake.

Now it’s “kids, come on down to the museum.”

Looking ahead, Horgan insisted that the rethink on the museum replacement creates an opportunity.

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“The good news is that the journey is starting anew,” he said. “I do believe that we will now have a thorough engagement with people.”

He didn’t rule out that the engagement process might lead to the conclusion that the halted plan “is the best way forward.”

Not likely, given the backlash, but in keeping with his insistence “everything is on the table.”

He also expressed hope that critics of the shelved plan “will have ideas of their own that will reduce costs.”

Given soaring construction costs, that doesn’t strike me as likely either.

One option that does seem plausible is Horgan’s suggestion that the museum could be moved.

Those and other decisions will be dependent on recommendations from the museum board and CEO, Horgan emphasized.

The premier’s decision to take ownership of the ill-advised replacement plan and send it back to the drawing board was the right one politically.

But as befits a 180-degree change of direction, the reversal left a lot of loose ends in its wake.

One of the biggest challenges is reconciling public affection for the old museum with the NDP’s determination to banish the legacy of colonialism.

Horgan’s stop work order notwithstanding, the decolonizing process is already well underway.

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