British Columbia

Minister defends pricey rebuild of Royal B.C. Museum, says 'there is a risk to doing nothing'

After two weeks of criticism, Tourism Minister Melanie Mark attempted to win over a skeptical public Wednesday on plans to rebuild the Royal B.C. Museum by outlining the business case for the $789-million project.

Business case presented Wednesday shows upgrading or repairing current building would be more expensive

Tourism Minister Melanie Mark, shown here in a file photo, acknowledged Wednesday that the province's announcement of plans to rebuild the Royal B.C. Museum 'did not land as I had hoped.' (Michael McArthur/CBC)

After two weeks of criticism, Tourism Minister Melanie Mark attempted to win over a skeptical public Wednesday on plans to rebuild the Royal B.C. Museum by outlining the business case for the $789-million project.

The province released more than 2,300 partially redacted pages of reports and appendices supporting the contentious project and held a 90-minute technical briefing with journalists before the minister's news conference in an attempt to explain why it's necessary to completely rebuild the museum.

Mark described the museum in its current state as "not functional," explaining that it's seismically unsafe, filled with hazardous materials like asbestos and lead, inaccessible to people with disabilities and structurally insufficient to maintain its current collection or host major exhibits.

"I understand that this investment is a lot of money, but we will not simply kick this project down the road. We will not risk wiping out our collective history," Mark said.

She said the business case shows rebuilding the facility is cheaper than upgrading or repairing the current building.

"There is a risk to doing nothing," Mark said.

The project has been a source of intense controversy since Premier John Horgan announced it at a news conference earlier this month, joking that it was "mammoth" news for the province.

Critics have hammered the government for committing so much money to rebuild the museum when B.C. is dealing with a family doctor shortage, skyrocketing gas prices and an affordability crisis.

New B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon has also turned the museum into a major talking point. Opposition members have derided the plan as a "vanity project" dozens of times on the legislature floor.

'We're trying to invest in the future'

Mark acknowledged the controversy during Wednesday's news conference.

"The announcement did not land as I had hoped," she said.

She also attempted to toss the political football back to the opposition, noting the previous Liberal government was aware of the museum's seismic problems back in 2018.

"They didn't do the work," she said.

Mark argued that investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the museum does not mean the government isn't able to pay for other crucial projects, like hospital upgrades and seismic work in schools.

"We're not trying to take away anything. We're trying to invest in the future," she said.

She added that the project would create jobs and eventually bring in more tourism dollars.

The NDP government has faced criticism over its plan to build a new Royal B.C. Museum. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The rebuilding project will take more than seven years to complete, and will require closing the current museum from September of this year until 2030.

Reporters heard Wednesday that it would take 2½ years for staff to properly clean, package and move the museum's seven million artifacts so construction can take place.

Two years ago, it was announced that much of the collection would be housed in a satellite facility in the neighbouring community of Colwood for research and storage at a budget of $224 million. That building is scheduled to be ready for 2025.

During Wednesday's technical briefing, reporters heard that infrastructure problems and lack of space had become major issues at the museum. For example, officials said that B.C. recently lost out on hosting the Royal Ontario Museum's celebrated blue whale exhibit because all of the elevators were too small to fit the skull.

The state of the building has also interfered with the repatriation of artifacts to the Indigenous communities they were taken from.

Officials revealed that the planned repatriation of one totem pole had been delayed because walls and windows would need to be removed and a crane brought in to move the item. Meanwhile, there often isn't enough space in the building to host the appropriate ceremonies related to repatriation.

The province also shared photos showing over-crowded storage areas, structural problems related to the age of the building and damage to the building caused by flooding in recent years.

'A public relations disaster'

The details presented Wednesday failed to sway the opposition. The B.C. Liberals described the business case as "unconvincing and incomplete" in a written statement, and finance critic Peter Milobar predicted the project would become a "boondoggle."

"I think the most troubling part is a third of the report has been redacted," Milobar told CBC.

"This is important because the government is telling us … that we should trust them on what is now an eight-year project and almost a billion dollars."

Green MLA Adam Olsen described the rollout of plans for the museum as "a public relations disaster" in a written statement and said the province has failed to meaningfully include the public in a process that appears to have been underway for years.

Olsen, who is a member of Tsartlip First Nation, also argued the government has done little to prove how a new building will help Indigenous people in B.C.

"The B.C. NDP have framed the new museum as an act of reconciliation and an opportunity for increased repatriation of items, but today's business case clearly points to the construction of a larger and 'modernized' building to house our sacred items and ancestral remains as the primary objective," he said.

"We do not need a new building to house items they intend to return to Indigenous people — we simply need the museum to prioritize their return."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

With files from Meera Bains and Jon Azpiri

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