Museum rethink could be opportunity for BC communities

Written By Rob Shaw

B.C.’s North may finally be in a position to get its own provincial museum, as the political implosion of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria project opens the door for a decentralized way to tell British Columbia’s history.

Premier John Horgan cancelled the $789 million rebuild of the museum on Wednesday, sending it back to the drawing board after an enormous public backlash against the expense at a time of rising inflation, health care challenges, and affordability concerns.

That rethink could include abandoning the one-museum-to-rule-them-all megastructure in Victoria, in favour of smaller satellite museums and enhanced travelling exhibits across the province.

Horgan raised the idea as one of several the public may support during a new round of public consultation.

“I am relentlessly optimistic and I do believe that we will now have a thorough engagement with people and we can potentially see costs come down as new ideas come forward,” he told reporters.

“Everything’s on the table.”

John Horgan

“Is the location the only location for a museum? Will we decentralize, as a response to an earlier question about whether we stimulate more activity in rural areas, and taking some of these artifacts and returning them to the territories where they came from whether they are indigenous or otherwise?

“So I think there is great opportunity to reduce costs as a result of these conversations.”

End of a museum monopoly?

Breaking up Victoria’s museum monopoly would be an effective way for the Horgan government to sidestep the public anger over the price tag, which the Opposition BC Liberals have successfully coined as a “billion-dollar boondoggle” and “vanity project” near the premier’s home riding.

Smaller regional museums in say Prince George, Kamloops, and Surrey could be part of larger developments in which the capital cost achieves a mix of outcomes — affordable housing, commercial tenants, daycare spaces, and an educational museum all tied together into a community hub of amenities that becomes a gathering point. 

The tourism benefits alone would help rally local leaders and businesses.

Then there is the reconciliation component.

Government could announce a return of the Indigenous artifacts back to their originating nations, in an unprecedented show of reconciliation.

Many First Nations have called for the return of their artifacts and property from the RBCM’s collections, so that they can be celebrated and shared within their own communities. 

Repatriation for reconciliation

The Victoria-centric museum apparatus has undertaken those repatriation efforts in a slow and often bureaucratic fashion, frustrating some Indigenous leaders.

Here too is an opportunity for a pivot from the Horgan government. It could announce a return of the Indigenous artifacts back to their originating nations, in an unprecedented show of reconciliation that fundamentally shifts the central collection of the Victoria museum back into the hands of local First Nations leaders.

New local regional museums have potential for a real shift in authentically telling the province’s history.

Couple that with offers of provincial funding and support to help nations curate their own exhibits, in their own words, at new local regional museums, and you have the potential for a meaningful and real shift in authentically telling the province’s history.

Satellite museums could boost rural economies

Horgan alluded to that possibility in his address, saying a new museum plan and “what that could mean for other economic activity opportunities… to move materials out to rural locations, back to Indigenous communities, which is part and parcel of our repatriation projects anyway.”

“Everything’s on the table.”

Not quite everything, however.

Horgan said he would not support just renovating the 54-year-old existing RBCM, because the structure would remain unsuitable to the task.

And it’s hard to imagine the NDP government, having been burned by public outrage over the current price tag, resurrecting the same mega-museum at the existing site after two years of public consultation when construction prices have skyrocketed for essentially the same project. 

What’s left then, will be a smaller Victoria museum. And with that, comes the potential for other communities to step in and share a piece of the action.