While it needs re-invention, the Royal BC Museum serves critical purposes and needs a safe, secure physical facility.
OUR ON-GOING THOUGHT EXPERIMENT with the dysfunctional Royal British Columbia Museum appears to now be entering its Schrödinger’s Cat phase—simultaneously dead and alive as a provincial government seeking to be all things to all people dithers over political optics.
The problem for government is that the museum is a mess and whatever it does to fix the situation now seems destined to give affront to someone:
First Nations who see it as a racialized repository of stolen artifacts; folks who think it a memory lane where they can wax nostalgic about a golden past that never was; business folk who equate museum with mini-Disneyland theme park; scientists and historians trying to deal with government attempts to commercialize and monetize public collections of specimens and archival documents; and, of course, cynical opposition politicians see it as a convenient cudgel with which to belabour government.
Organizationally, the RCBM has undoubtedly been a political trainwreck.
The CEO hired in 2012 resigned in early 2021 after an independent study denounced it as a “toxic workplace characterized by a culture of fear and distrust.”
This evaluation was itself triggered by the resignation in 2020 of Lucy Bell, a respected and well-liked member of the Haida First Nation and the museum’s head of Indigenous collections and repatriation, a program for returning artifacts to their rightful owners as part of the reconciliation process.
She said she’d been subjected to continuous discrimination, white privilege, bullying and micro-aggressions from senior managers. Many museum staff signed a letter supporting her view.
Next, Bell’s successor, Troy Sebastien, a Ktunaxa, bailed as Indigenous curator when his contract expired in 2021, describing the place as “a bastion of white supremacy.”
“I am happy to leave that wicked place behind,” he posted to social media at the time.
Then there’s the muddle of sorting out a perceived mission for the museum to reflect the post-colonial world that will—hopefully—emerge over the rest of the 21st Century.
And finally, this whole ramshackle problem is taking place in structurally unsuitable buildings. They pose a substantial seismic danger to the public, to museum staff and, equally important, to the irreplaceable collections of archival documents, art works, specimens and historic objects in the custody, whether temporary or permanent, of the museum.
Frankly, while the physical plant tends to be listed after all the other problems, it should be given priority because if there’s a failure there, all the other complaints will be moot.
Let’s get one thing straight, though, this museum is a mess precisely because of government’s past political meddling—that includes the very same opposition politicians howling now about government ineptitude.
Opposition leader Kevin Falcon was deputy premier and finance minister in Liberal governments that over 15 years allowed the backlog in filing archival records to reach a mind-boggling 33,000 boxes of documents. That shoddy oversight was amplified by imposition of inappropriate goals and expectations, chronic underfunding and crass deployment of the museum as a marketing tool for tourism, operating on a revenue-generating business model rather than something central to the province’s cultural identity.
These chickens finally came home to roost in the form of internal meltdowns over direction and purpose, accusations of colonial attitudes, and systemic institutionalized racism that ran counter to government’s vaunted post-colonial reconciliation objectives.
Thus, the plan announced in mid-May was for an ambitious reset—to rebuild the whole decrepit institution from the ground up.
The Royal BC Museum, Victoria, 2006. Photo by Ryan Bushby (HighInBC), Creative Commons
First, to house it in a seismically safe $789 million complex that addressed the need for reimagined public exhibits in the capital’s core.
Second, to create safe storage for preservation and management of more than seven million objects including 110,000 boxes of documents, 180,000 historic maps and five million photographs.
Third, to provide facilities necessary for state-of-the-art management of its science collections from fossils to fleas and for the research they generate to which they are essential.
But then soon-to-depart Premier John Horgan abruptly announced on June 22 that he was slamming the brakes on this long overdue plan to demolish and replace seismically unsound structures which official studies acknowledge put the public, museum staff and the collections themselves at serious risk should there be a major earthquake in or near the capital.
“I always try to act in the best interests of British Columbians,” the premier said, wearing his best “mea culpa” expression from the public relations apology playbook. “That involves listening. That also means taking responsibility when you make the wrong call.”
Sorry to be the ray of sunshine at this expedient political self-flagellation fest, but the wrong call was cancelling a vitally important renewal. And it was made for entirely the wrong reasons—to appease, deflect and defuse political criticism.
Yes, First Nations complained that they weren’t adequately consulted in the runup to the decision to rebuild the museum.
Fair enough. Further, broader consultation on how to repatriate or display artifacts is clearly necessary. But planning how First Nations needs should be met in a redesigned museum has nothing to do with replacing the structurally unsafe buildings in which those objectives cannot be met.
This is like saying we won’t replace the falling-down house until we agree on where to put the furniture.
So, First Nations complaints alone weren’t the only thing behind Horgan’s sudden reset of his reset.
Nope, this was a largely political decision triggered by fear of the zero-sum nay-sayers who emerge from the woodwork in droves every time there’s a prospect of some major public investment in culture.
The zero-sum fallacy
The zero-sum fallacy comes to us from game theory. It sees situations in which one person’s gain is balanced by another person’s loss; spending on one thing necessitates not spending on something else. If everything is perceived as a win-loss equation, then there can’t be a win-win outcome. But as every government that runs a deficit today against expanding surpluses tomorrow well understands, zero-sum thinking is based in a fallacy.
Yet we hear it all the time:
“Not one penny for a new concert hall for the symphony as long as there are homeless people!” the sanctimonious argument usually goes, the add-on assumption being that music is a frill that poor people don’t care about.
Buy people do care, though. Three out of four Canadians attend live performances each year and such performances contribute about $3 billion to national GDP.
“Not another dime for writers’ grants as long as people are using food banks!” This argument assumes that literature is a dispensable luxury like chocolates, not a necessity of civilization; that food for the mind is less important than food for the body.
“The budget is tight. Reduce spending on frills—cut the school music program (theatre program, art program, creative writing program, classics department etc.)!” Well, we’ve just been through this one in Victoria area schools.
And now, right on cue, here is the latest earnest iteration of the zero-sum fallacy: “Spending $789 million on a new Royal British Columbia Museum is a waste of money that could be spent on health care.”
Sorry, but this argument is like saying let’s not fix the leaking roof when we can spend that money on travel insurance.
This fallacious zero-sum thinking makes it easy for pundits to whip up opposition to any big ticket spending. All that’s required is to characterize the spending as a profligate frill and then juxtapose it with some other urgent need.
And so, opportunistic mainland politicians begin diligently flogging their anti-culture, anti-intellectual, anti-tax ideology, obviously seeking favour with what they hope will be some kind of populist libertarian uprising against the reigning New Democrats, not to mention all those entitled folk in Victoria who vote for them.
In this zero-sum calculus, money spent on arts and culture represents a subtraction from the health care budget.
Well, no, it doesn‘t represent a subtraction, unless you also consider spending on fire-fighting represents a subtraction from funds better spent on the homeless—after all, what use are fire stations to people who don’t have homes? Or that annual homeowner grants are subtractions from medical funding—anyone for transferring those funds to the health budget?
Yet our social landscape is rife with this selectively applied simple-minded libertarian nonsense.
Olympics and traffic exchanges make $789m sound like a bargain
Last time I looked, polling suggested 70 percent of British Columbians, mostly on the mainland, have now decided that spending money on a new museum that injects more than $50 million a year directly into South Vancouver Island’s economy is money wasted. Mind you, the $7 billion price tag of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver—which a subsequent report found neither boosted tourism much overall nor enhanced the international image of Vancouver or Whistler—is proudly held up as a triumph of value for money.
And now we’ve got the Province ponying up $260 million to cover the costs of Vancouver hosting a few games in the 2026 World Cup for soccer. Got that? Spend maybe $50 million a game for events that last 90 minutes or so—about one-third the cost of building a new, safe museum complex.
So, no, the polling doesn’t prove that this popular dog-in-the-manger anti-museum sentiment is right. Indeed, it’s a reminder that the masses—not to mention we in the media—have a sorry history of being profoundly wrong.
Meanwhile, popular approval for $100 million for one exchange that moves traffic jams a few blocks closer to the city core, no problem. Need $1 billion for highway improvements that reduce commuter time by 15 minutes for millworkers who want to live in Nanaimo and work in Campbell River, yay! (The mill has since closed, by the way.)
How about $16 billion for a third dam on the Peace River that has since morphed into the most expensive hydroelectric project in Canadian history, is plagued with geo-technical problems, and has been described by a former CEO of BC, Hydro as a gigantic game of Russian roulette?
Or the $21.4 billion you and I will now be coughing up to complete the TMX pipeline which will double the export of dilbit from Alberta’s oil sands—not to mention doubling the tanker traffic that will have to carry it to market through the heart of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
Compared to such projects, all this zero-sum complaining about spending what’s needed to replace an unsafe, inadequate and ill-planned structure that currently houses most of BC’s critical archival history, many of the artifacts in which that history is embodied, and which enables public access to that history, is just profoundly misguided nonsense.
All museums need to re-invent themselves—from a secure physical place
Yes, there are problems with the museum as an organization. Its internal management culture has been criticized by its own staff as racist, misogynist, dysfunctional and so on. But those internal problems—a legacy of the failed oversight by the same politicians who now wail about the problem—have been clearly identified. There’s a new chief executive and a new management approach that presumably seeks to address them.
Yes, the fuss raised about this is important, but it’s also been reframed as an indictment of the urgent need to replace the museum’s lousy structures in a media side-show that’s now been expediently appropriated by some opposition politicians.
The long-term issues that must be addressed and which the redevelopment plan clearly intended to address have to do with both the physical plant and with the museum’s philosophical imperative to reimagine its mandate—what it can and should be for the rest of this century.
In this regard, the RBCM’s problem is the same one faced by all museums as the world emerges from the arrogant assumptions of racialized Euro-centric imperialism into a post-colonial world that strives for greater cultural and ethnic egalitarianism.
Like all significant museums, the RBCM is challenged by the entirely reasonable demand that it now redefine its role in the whole society it serves—and seeks to reflect—and which has changed rapidly around it.
Serious museums are finished as curiosity cabinets; as trophy cases for imperialism; as self-aggrandizing cultural and historical propaganda tools. And they should be equally finished as the for-profit tourist theme parks that some business leaders and politicians wish they’d emulate.
Theme parks feed back to the public its own cherished fantasies about itself; good museums tell it the truth, sometimes the unpleasant truth, as, for example, the Museum of London does in squarely facing the relationships between the city’s prosperity, the sugar trade, empire and the slave trade upon which it was all founded.
What exact form the RBCM should take for the culturally diverse, pluralistic, inclusive society of the 21st Century is still a work in progress. And, yes, it’s up for robust debate. Whatever form it takes, though, it still must meet some basic needs.
First, it must be structurally safe for the people who work there and for the average of 800,000 annual visitors to its exhibitions—that’s more visitors than the entire cruise ship schedule delivers to Victoria each year. About 35,000 of those visits every year are by school children.
The current seismically unsafe structures pose a constant hazard to those in the building whether working there or visiting, and to the contents they are supposed to protect.
Anyone looking at the large open areas, extensive overhangs, vast arrays of glass and the display of large, heavy artifacts in the RBCM’s exhibition building can see why that is so without needing a degree in civil engineering or emergency measures planning.
Major seismic upgrades to urban building codes were redesigned and mandated on the West Coast after a devastating Magnitude 8.1 earthquake centred 250 miles west of Mexico City caused 3,000 buildings to collapse, seriously damaged 100,000 other buildings, killed 10,000 people and injured 30,000 more.
But the RBCM exhibition structure was built and put into service 18 years before those building codes were revised to address the significant threat of earthquakes in this region.
The provincial government says that trying to seismically retrofit the building, which would involve stripping it to its core to evaluate safety of both frame and foundations, would cost more than demolishing it and rebuilding with up-to-date state-of-the-art seismic applications.
We now know that several large faults capable of generating major earthquakes of the same magnitude that severely damaged downtown Christchurch in New Zealand in 2011 pass either directly under or adjacent to Victoria’s city core.
New research published last year concludes that what we have discovered about these faults “increases the seismic risk assessment results by 10 to 30 percent.”
And, of course, there’s still the prospect of a huge subduction event off the west coast of Vancouver Island like the one that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean in 2004 or the one that killed 16,000 people in Japan in 2011.
It could release over 1,000 times more destructive energy than that released by the Christchurch earthquake, threatening Victoria’s downtown not only with the prolonged shaking but also with inundation of low-lying areas.
We’ve an extensive history of large earthquakes in this region. A 7.4 Magnitude event on a fault in Washington State just before Christmas in 1872 caused such severe shaking in Victoria that people fled buildings. Another on Vancouver Island in December, 1918, woke people in the night as far east as Kelowna. A 7.4 on Comox Lake in 1946 caused a great deal of damage—it knocked down 75 per cent of chimneys in mid-Island communities and was felt as far away as Portland and Prince Rupert. In 1949, there was an 8.1 off Haida Gwaii and in 2012 there was a 7.7 there. And, of course, here was a Magnitude 9.0, possibly greater, off the West Coast on the evening of August 26, 1700, that destroyed whole indigenous communities and sent a destructive tsunami as far as Japan.
Other central functions demand new space
The second crucial function of the museum (and a legislated mandate) is to “secure, receive and preserve specimens, artifacts and archival and other materials that illustrate the natural or human history of British Columbia.”
Those materials, numbering more than seven million items, include the critical records of government and archived court records. Those records, it’s worth pointing out, have recently played a central role as First Nations research land claims, their dispossession of lands and disenfranchisement. They will be crucial to any future process of decolonization, reconciliation and reconstruction of equitable economic inclusion.
After the work of the legislature and the courts, the records of these proceedings and an unfettered public access to those records are the most important component of democratic government. Without those records there can be no political accountability and without accountability you can’t have a democracy.
Yet the museum itself warned us years ago that: “Much of our collection and archives are stored underground and below sea level. They are at significant risk from earthquake and flooding.” The buildings might collapse and then they might be inundated by a subsequent tsnami.
Independent risk assessments published every year note that the proportion of collections for which risk can be adequately mitigated declined from 88 percent in 2012 to 80 percent in 2022. Over the past decade, the number of artifacts, specimens and documents considered at serious risk has increased by 10 percent; 20 percent of the collections are at risk.
To be sure, some of those priceless and irreplaceable collections are already destined for new, more secure management facilities in a more seismically safe location in Colwood and some have been dispersed to other storage.
But for the museum to fulfill its other legislated mandate, which is “to serve as an educational organization,” and for the public to continue have safe and open access to the collections—however they may be reimagined for future educational display—there must be a new, exhibition space.
To maximize ease of access it should be built in the city core. It deserves to be rigorously designed to the most modern standards; ones that can best withstand a great earthquake and keep anybody in the building as safe as possible.
This time it should be done right. That demands doing it from the ground up. Our provincial government, commendably, appeared to grasp this reality—until it decided that appeasing the zero-sum faction took precedence over doing the right thing.
If the premier can soldier on with the Site C dam and its critics, he can soldier on with the new museum and its nay-sayers. Frankly, $789 million for a world class museum is peanuts compared to $35 billion for a couple of fossil fuel projects which have a lifespan of less than a century and contributed to ther climate change that cost BC taxpayers more than $1 billion in damage last year.
As for the zero-sum critics who think it’s ok to play seismic roulette with BC’s priceless and irreplaceable cultural heritage, they should be reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that cynics are those who know the price of everything—but the value of nothing.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.