If things had gone as planned, visiting the Royal BC Museum in Victoria this weekend would have been a different kind of experience. Previously scheduled to close on Sept. 6 ahead of a multimillion-dollar, multiyear demolition and rebuild, the provincial museum may have attracted nostalgic British Columbians eager to show it to children who would no longer be kids when it reopened – and to see it themselves one last time. Not that there’s much left to see. Swaths of the museum have been shuttered in anticipation of the closure. The joke goes that even at the deeply discounted admission price of $5, visitors are still not getting their money’s worth.
But the museum is not going ahead with the proposed eight-year project. Instead, museum staff have spent the summer working up plans to refill some of the galleries, while also preparing to launch a more than $1-million public consultation campaign about the museum’s future.
“It’s a very intensive time,” says museum CEO Alicia Dubois.
The Royal BC Museum and Archives is a series of structures that sits by Victoria’s Inner Harbour. The RBCM has an operating budget of about $21-million, with an annual provincial grant of just less than $12-million. Prepandemic, about half of the museum’s operating budget came from admissions – including its IMAX theatre – as well as philanthropy. While it’s a much smaller institution than the country’s largest provincial museum – the Royal Ontario Museum, which is projecting operating expenses of $81-million in 2022-2023 – the RBCM is a key part of Victoria’s tourism economy. At its current location since 1968, it has not been substantially renovated.
But to Premier John Horgan’s surprise, his May announcement that the NDP government would spend $789-million to build a new RBCM was not embraced. In the midst of ballooning inflation, housing and health care crises, and on year three of a pandemic, the public did not seem to care that the building has outlived its useful life, has significant seismic issues and that much of its content is outdated.
“There was not a lot of positive feedback,” Dubois told The Globe and Mail in an interview this week, during which she revealed plans for the museum moving forward.
One could call that an understatement. After weeks of outrage from the public and the opposition – the BC Liberals promised to cancel the rebuild, calling it a vanity project – the Premier halted the project.
“We thought we had it right. Clearly we did not,” Horgan said as he made the announcement in June. The idea would be re-evaluated after public consultation, he said. Noticeably absent that day was Tourism, Arts Culture and Sport Minister Melanie Mark, who had been a strong supporter of the new museum and, before the reversal, had made the case for it with a detailed technical briefing.
As for the museum itself – with its third-floor galleries dedicated to the history of B.C. already closed – Horgan mused at that news conference that it shouldn’t be a problem to fill those empty spaces.
“There are seven million items held by the museum and some of them have not seen the light of day for generations,” he told reporters. “So I don’t believe there’ll be any challenge in filling spaces in the exhibit hall to ensure that there’s a very full and comprehensive flavour of all of the history and tapestry of what makes British Columbia so unique.”
You could almost hear the gasps from curators.
“I think the whole team, they were like, ‘What?’” said Dubois this week. She pointed out that the museum’s recent Orcas exhibition took three years to put together.
Dubois and her staff had to scramble to change gears. Amid the curatorial whiplash, Dubois also had to come up with a plan for meaningful public engagement after a process that was perceived as being less than transparent – all while dealing with a significant internal cultural shift, following findings of systemic racism at the museum that preceded her arrival. In addition, the museum is building a new collections and research facility just outside Victoria. “Needless to say, people are working very hard,” she says.
But now she has a plan for both the public engagement campaign – with a proposal presented to the board on Aug. 18 – and for programming at least some of those empty galleries.
Beginning in the fall, three museum officials, including Dubois, will travel to 24 spots in the province to meet with the public and stakeholders, among them Indigenous groups and multicultural associations. Travelling exhibits will complement the discussions. There will also be virtual meetings.
These phase-one meetings will take place between November and March. The outcome will inform phase two: further community meetings with a more specific focus based on what the group heard in its first round. After that, there will likely be a third phase of consultation. “That will take us three years out from now,” says Dubois. So the current museum won’t be closing any time soon – if at all.
According to Dubois, the budget for the engagement plan comes in at about $1.4-million – which will go to Treasury Board for approval next month. When the new building plan collapsed, the funding disappeared with it. She will also ask for more money to reopen the third floor and curate the now-empty galleries.
That floor had been home to the First Peoples gallery – a problematic portrayal of the Indigenous history of this part of the world; a more recently created exhibition about Indigenous languages; and the Becoming BC gallery – including the popular Old Town, where visitors could stroll through faux historical shops and such. The floor was closed in early January. “Decolonization of the museum’s galleries is important and long overdue,” then-acting CEO Daniel Muzyka said in a statement at the time. He said it was time to create new narratives.
The decision caused outrage – particularly over the loss of Old Town; one online petition called the decision “an Orwellian political pogrom against BC’s history.”
The reversal on the closure of the museum will not bring those galleries back, however. While parts of the third floor will reopen – likely in January or February, following escalator maintenance – they will look very different. “It will not be Old Town as everybody knows it,” says Dubois. Nor will the First Peoples gallery reopen as it was.
Dubois has another monumental challenge: fixing the internal problems at the museum, which became very public in 2020 after Lucy Bell resigned, citing racism at the institution. The Haida woman’s departure led to a formal investigation and a diversity and inclusion process that found that the museum was a “dysfunctional and toxic workplace, characterized by a culture of fear and distrust.” After that, CEO Jack Lohman resigned. Muzyka, who was board chair, became interim CEO. He has since left the board.
Dubois, 49, took on the job in February. Her father had Indigenous roots, she says, and those stories she grew up with have been instrumental in her career – and are guiding her work now. “I don’t want us as a museum to take that colonial approach with respect to storytelling. We want the communities to be the authority over their storytelling and for us to just be facilitators.”
She was born in Sudbury, Ont., and when she was 5, the family moved to Fort McMurray, Alta. When she started law school at the University of Toronto, she was the single mother of a three-year-old. (She now has three children and two grandchildren.)
After a decade practising as a lawyer – including as legal counsel for the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto – Dubois moved into finance. Her positions included vice-president, Indigenous markets at CIBC. She is also co-chair of the board for the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. As for museum experience, she sat on the board of the Royal Ontario Museum for three years.
While the Royal BC Museum reimagination was underway when she started the job, the plan had not been finalized. She feels for the museum staff who have had to adjust after years of working toward this project.
“It’s tough because rather than being focused on being the museum and doing the things that museum people do, they’ve been distracted a bit,” she says. Not that they begrudge the new assignment, she adds. “I mean, our exhibitions team has been doing nothing but building moving boxes. So the fact that they get to go back to the creative work that they love, that really invigorates them.”
Minister Mark was not available for an interview, but a written statement attributed to her said she was looking forward to hearing from the public and Indigenous communities. “The museum belongs to the people of this province and decisions about its future should reflect their priorities.”
While the surprise decision to halt the rebuild has meant a huge amount of work, Dubois says it has also given the museum a chance to revisit and improve the plan and “really” invite the public to engage with the museum and “really” reimagine the place. “Frankly,” she says, “I feel grateful.”