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Province cancels controversial $789-million Royal BC Museum rebuild

Premier says public engagement will now determine the future of the ‘seismically unsafe’ building
Royal BC Museum
The Royal BC Museum is in Victoria.

The provincial government is cancelling its highly controversial $789-million Royal BC Museum rebuild project, following significant backlash from British Columbians.

Premier John Horgan made the announcement on Wednesday (June 22), saying his government is taking the project back to the drawing board for a more thorough public engagement.

“We thought we had it right. Clearly, we did not,” Horgan said.

The province announced the museum overhaul, along with its hefty price tag, in mid-May. Many British Columbians immediately pushed back, questioning why such a significant amount of money was being spent on a museum rather than helping to solve the family doctor shortage or housing unaffordability, for example.

In response, the NDP took the unprecedented step of releasing its business case and concept plan on May 25.

In it, the province described the current site as beyond its useful life, citing hazardous materials like asbestos, lead, mercury and arsenic, as well as flooding and backed-up sewage problems. It said it is inevitable that the building be replaced or upgraded soon.

British Columbians still weren’t convinced, however. In an Angus Reid Institute survey published on June 16, 69 per cent of respondents said they opposed the project, while 22 per cent said they supported it.

Speaking on Wednesday, Horgan took responsibility for not engaging with people better throughout the five-year planning process. He added that despite public perception, the expensive rebuild was never going to take priority over more urgent issues.

“It’s not an either/or,” Horgan said, noting he still supports the province and museum’s proposed plan, but looks forward to seeing what other ideas the public now comes up with.

“We can potentially see costs come down as new ideas come forward,” Horgan said.

In its business case, the province revealed five options it was choosing between: maintain the status quo with no new museum ($89 million), build a new museum at a new location ($811 million), build a new museum on-site plus another facility for artifacts ($789 million), construct a new building on-site ($893 million) or retain and repair the existing building ($1.1 billion).

In the Angus Reid poll, 62 per cent of people opted for the status quo option.

Horgan said decentralizing or digitizing the museum could present more cost-effective options, too. He noted that of the seven-million objects and artifacts the museum houses, only about one per cent are displayed due to limited space. Repatriating some of those items could ensure they are seen elsewhere in the province.

“Everything is on the table,” Horgan said.

He said it will be up to the museum’s board now to run an engagement process with the public and determine how long it goes on.

Until a decision has been made, the museum – with its reduced galleries – will remain open. Construction of the new collections and research building in the Victoria suburb of Colwood will continue.