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Tourism minister pitches reopening Royal B.C. Museum's Old Town exhibit

"There is potential for it to reopen in the future, parts of it, definitely," says B.C. tourism minister. The Royal B.C. Museum had announced in November 2021 that it was closing sections of its third floor “to start the process of decolonization in those galleries.”
Guests at a Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce event tour part of the Old Town exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum. The exhibit is currently closed to the public. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST. Feb. 9, 2023

The controversial closure of the Old Town exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum could be reversed and there is potential for it to reopen in some fashion, Tourism Minister Lana Popham said Monday.

She acknowledged public unhappiness when the popular gallery detailing 19th century colonial life was closed 13 months ago. “My expectation as minister is that the museum will open to the public in the way that they want,” Popham said.

“People miss it. They’re passionate about it and they want access to it. There is potential for it to reopen in the future, parts of it, definitely.

“But I mean I’m not in charge of Old Town and the museum has a lot of work to do right now as they go around the province and talk to people.”

Popham said one component of the third-floor display, the train station, has been dismantled.

But much of the rest is intact, contrary to the original plan.

The Royal B.C. Museum announced in November 2021 that it was beginning to close sections of the third floor “to start the process of decolonization in those 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.”

The statement said decolonization was long overdue and the third floor would be closed so the galleries could be decanted (deconstructed).

It was to be a start on the long-term work of “creating new narratives that include under-represented voices and reflect the lived experiences and contemporary stories of the people in B.C.”

Six months later then-premier John Horgan announced a $789 million plan to shut the whole facility down for eight years while it was torn down and rebuilt.

That idea was abandoned weeks later in the face of strong public objections to the price tag. The government said it was going back to the drawing board, starting with a lengthy round of public engagement. That started last month.

RBCM CEO Alicia Dubois confirmed to the Times Colonist last month that much of the Old Town exhibit remains as it was.

The museum allowed guests at a Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce reception last week to tour part of Old Town, showing that much of it remains.

Popham said the museum’s board of directors makes the operational decisions but she has asked about the issue and is aware of how keen people are to see the third-floor reopened in some fashion.

The third-floor galleries were left unchanged for years. It showed representations of B.C.’s urban history including an 1890 hotel room and various shops. There was also a full‑size replica of part of Capt. George Vancouver’s HMS ­Discovery.

Popham said that interpretation should be updated to reflect that an early European explorer’s ship bombed some Indigenous villages. “We haven’t been telling that story.”

There is a depiction of Chinatown on the third-floor that Popham said was developed in close consultation with the Chinese-Canadian community.

She said: “They’re proud of it, and they want it to stay there. So I think there’s going to be ways to bring that back.”

Exactly what exhibits would be returned to public view and which would be updated or changed is an internal decision, Popham said. There is no set timeline.

The new stance could remove some of the vagueness about how the museum will function during the lengthy consultation process that could run a number of years. It depends on whether the museum agrees with Popham’s desire to see the third floor reopen. Cultural sensitivities, an aging physical plant, seismic concerns and costs are all in the mix.

Meanwhile, work continues on the new Collections and Research facility near Royal Bay in Colwood in the face of marked budget increases.

The 14,400 square metre facility will house millions of items currently stored in the archives building adjacent to the RBCM.

It was originally projected to cost $177 million, but the latest B.C. quarterly report shows the price tag now is $224 million. It is expected to be completed in 2025, a year later than the original target date.

Figures will be updated in the Feb. 28 budget.

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