The Royal BC Museum in Victoria.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Next week, the BC government will present its business case for spending nearly $800 million to rebuild the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. The announcement, made on May 13, came as a shock. BC Premier John Horgan has promised a “safer, more inclusive and accessible modern building” that will become a landmark destination for generations to come.

It has become a hot political issue: $789 million to build a new museum? That seems like a lot to some British Columbians, especially as the pandemic drags on, family doctors quit citing low salaries and affordable housing remains a pipe dream here.

In an interview on Friday, Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Minister Melanie Mark said the project was necessary for many reasons, including the security of the collection. “The cost of doing nothing is a cost people need to consider,” said Mark, who represents a riding in Vancouver.

“There is a significant risk to the building and the risk is to erase our collective history.”

Mark said structural problems with the existing building – including seismic issues – had been known since 2006 when, she pointed out, the BC Liberals were in power.

The Liberals hammered the proposal, calling it stupid, vanity and a waste of money. BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said he would cancel it.

“It is unacceptable that in the midst of an affordability crisis with an ever-higher cost of living, John Horgan and the NDP are embarking on the costliest museum project in Canadian history,” Falcon tweeted on Wednesday. “Cancel that now and invest in people today.”

The museum, at Victoria’s Inner Harbour, along with the Provincial Archives, is a great attraction for families and school groups. Until January, the Royal BC Museum included exhibits on the aboriginal and settler history of what is now British Columbia. This entire floor was shut down, after criticizing how these stories were told by the museum (separately, for one). But then the closure, including of the beloved Old Town, prompted more criticism.

The current building is expected to close in September and not reopen until 2030.

A previously announced storage facility is being built outside Victoria in Colwood, at an additional cost of $224 million, where the provincial archives and much of the museum’s collection will be housed. But other artifacts, including Indigenous collections, must remain at the main site, Mark said.

The Royal BC Museum at Victoria’s Inner Harbour, as well as the Provincial Archives, are a big attraction for families and school groups.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

The announcement of a stripped-down, high-priced museum this month has drawn fire from various perspectives – not just opposition politicians.

First, this price. What else could that money pay for? New schools, more nurses, better salaries for family doctors – there’s a huge shortage here.

When it comes to seismic issues, what about the upgrades needed in a host of other buildings, including schools and hospitals?

The museum plans to send traveling exhibits during the closure, but that still means many years of closure during which children will not be able to visit the provincial museum. Parents do the math: 10-year-olds having fun today in front of the exhibit on the woolly mammoth will be able to vote when the new museum opens.

Additionally, the museum has gone through its own controversy. A high-profile Indigenous curator has quit, citing systemic racism within the organization. An independent report echoed his concerns, leading to an apology from the museum. The now former executive director left in the middle of it all.

It’s not exactly the kind of record that deserves an $800 million award.

Although for Mark, who is Indigenous, this is part of the heart of the matter. She has already spoken of the need to decolonize the museum. The content of the new facility will be modernized – along with its bricks and mortar (and wood) – to reflect provincial history in a broader and more inclusive way, in collaboration with local First Nations.

By shutting down long before they can even have a design and then rebuilding from scratch, is the government signaling that they view this as a burnout situation?

Then there’s the case of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which has argued for a new home for years. In 2008, BC Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell announced $50 million for a new gallery. The VAG requested an additional $50 million from the province, to no avail. It has a site, design, and private funds: In November, philanthropist Michael Audain announced a $100 million donation to the project. But he needs more from the province and from Ottawa. The VAG, years ahead of the Royal BC Museum in this process, remains open at its current location.

Moreover, after the current outcry, will governments hesitate to invest in culture?

Mark said it’s not about one situation or the other – not when it comes to funding artists or arts organizations struggling due to the pandemic. And not when it comes to the VAG which, she said, is “on our radar”.

When I asked Mark if she was surprised by the backlash, she said she wanted to focus on there being a risk to the “people’s museum”.

An exhibit from the third floor of the Royal BC Museum.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

It didn’t help the government’s public relations campaign that the Prime Minister, when asked this week about record petrol prices (I paid $2.29 a liter to fill up the other day), said people should think twice before getting into their cars. As one resident wondered on Twitter, how can we afford to drive to the new museum?

Mark said the business case, which will be shared on Wednesday, demonstrates why this is needed.

Would the government reconsider the project, given the response?

“I recognize there’s a backlash right now,” Mark said. But she said people took a different view once they understood the risk. “Someone will be to blame if our history is shattered.”

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