Until last week, it’s probably safe to say that the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria was at the top of almost no one’s mind, and it certainly wasn’t figuring in any articles or op-ed pieces or letters to the editor.
What a difference a few days make. Late last week the NDP government of John Horgan announced that the venerable museum would be closing at the end of September 2022, to undergo a complete rebuild projected to cost $789 million. The existing museum is set to be razed and a new one built on the site, with a planned reopening date of 2030.
That’s right. One of the capital’s flagship attractions would not just be undergoing renovations or upgrades: a brand new museum would be rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes in eight years’-time. Interestingly — considering that Mr. Horgan likes to have public input and consultation on all manner of government initiatives, from accessibility to the use of rodenticides to whether or not we should scrap Daylight Saving Time — there was no consultation on this one. It was presented as a fait accompli, via a news release with no fewer than 18 supportive statements from different dignitaries — a new record, I think — that came out at 1:38 p.m. on Friday, May 13.
Setting aside the ominous (to some) date, there is the fact that governments traditionally bury bad or damaging or potentially embarrassing news by sending out the release on a Friday afternoon. The thinking is that a lot of people don’t pay much attention to the news over the weekend, so by Monday any resulting furor might have burned itself out.
If that was the thinking regarding the museum news, then it goes to show how wrong you can be. Far from abating, the storm is only intensifying, which must be baffling to Victoria. After all, almost everyone loves the Royal B.C. Museum, so why all the angry editorials and letters and social media posts? Hating on the museum is like hating on daffodils, or kittens, or wild geese that fly with the moon on their wing.
Of course, people aren’t really hating on the museum; they’re hating on the fact that the government appears to be pulling a fast one by quietly announcing that they plan on spending nearly $800 million to rebuild the museum, which no one was asking for, at a time when gas prices are through the roof, inflation is skyrocketing, affordable housing is increasingly an oxymoron, progress on rebuilding Lytton is glacial at best, and our health care system is crumbling around us. Stop any person on the street and ask them how Victoria should be spending $800 million right now, and a new museum for Victoria isn’t even going to be on the list, much less at the tippy-top of it.
(It should also be pointed out that predicting the final price tag for a major project that’s not slated to be complete for years is a fool’s game; Site C dam, anyone? Given the supply chain issues, worker shortages, inflation, and everything else, if the final price tag for a new museum is less than $1.5 billion I’ll eat this newspaper.)
I am not anti-museum; in fact, I love museums. They’re some of my very favourite places, and are essential resources. I also love the Royal B.C. Museum, which I visited several times on school trips when I lived in Victoria for a year in the early 1970s. During a reception there a few years ago I slipped away from the crowd and roamed the empty galleries, which was an absolute treat.
Does the current museum need a complete replacement at this precise moment in time? Not being an architect or engineer, I can’t say for certain, but if it doesn’t, then a quiet backtrack might be in order, given the state of the world we’re living in right now. There will never be a perfect time for an expensive project like this, but there’s got to be a better one.