Major expansion at the Royal B.C. Museum?

Proposed changes to the RBCM: the clear white structure to the back left is the new curatorial tower & archives; to the right is a new entrance and multi-functional area. Source: Times-Colonist.

The Victoria Times-Colonist had a story Saturday that the Royal B.C. Museum is proposing a major expansion, in which theirs quare footage would more than double, from 379,000 to 895,000 square feet.  The curatorial tower and the low-rise archives building on the NW side of the block would be demolished, replaced by a new multi-function complex which would also form the entrance to the museum.  The collections and curatorial facilities, and the archives, would move to a new 14 story building to the south of the current museum.  The RBCM C.E.O, Pauline Rafferty (an archaeologist by training) notes that ““We are now at a crossroads.  We have outgrown our on-site storage facilities and significant artifacts are stored below sea level.”  The article estimates the cost will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars which is easy to believe. The Times-Colonist weighs in with a strong editorial of support, citing the collapse of the Cologne archives last year with irreparable damage to the history of that City.  So: no-brainer, right?

But I’m of two minds about this.  The RBCM is indeed short of space, and much of the space they do have is antiquated.  The archaeology collections are in a low-ceiling maze.  Some of the most incredible ethnological specimens in the world are stored away, seldom to be seen.  It’d be wonderful for these collections to be allowed to breathe and expand.

But the expansion that is so desperately needed at the museum is increase in the human resources, in the researchers and educators who will continue the mission of the RBCM: to investigate and interpret the human and natural history of the province of B.C.  Or, as the Museum itself defines it with reference to the Museums Act (emphasis added):

  • to secure, receive and preserve specimens, artifacts and archival and other materials that illustrate the natural or human history of British Columbia;
  • to hold and manage the archives of the government;
  • to increase and communicate knowledge of the natural and human history of British Columbia by research, exhibits, publications and other means;
  • to serve as an educational organization;
  • to develop exhibits that are of interest to the public;
  • to manage, conserve and provide access to the collection;
  • on the request of the government, to manage cultural and heritage facilities designated by the government;
  • and to perform functions usually performed by a museum and archives.

The museum has, over the years, lost its way.  Researchers were let go and not replaced.  Those left were given additional administrative responsibilities.  Ticket-takers and publicists were hired in their stead.  Very little research now comes from the museum.  Their publication series are anaemic.  Their web presence is a joke.  The good people there are running to keep up, but for an institution of its stature in a wealthy province with a natural and cultural landscape unparalleled in the world, the RBCM is seriously under-performing.

If this expansion is about expanding the human capacity of the museum to do research and interpretation of BC topics, and not just its ability to host huge travelling mega-shows, then I am for it.  If they can manage this expansion, hire more researchers, fund more educational outreach, establish a serious presence on the web, practice some meaningful virtual repatriation, provide space and setting for First Nations people to visit their treasure, then great.  They should, they must, take a lead role in preservation of archaeological heritage and in conservation biology in British Columbia.

But I live a five minute drive away and I haven’t been to the museum for several years:  their travelling exhibits are seldom of interest to me, and the core exhibits, the ones about British Columbia, are very seldom enhanced: state of the art in 1975 yes; today not so much.  I’ve heard a few good things about S’abadeb – The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists, but that’s the first event in several years I’ve been tempted by.  And I’m a museum nerd. It’s actually very telling that the PDFs linked at the bottom of the S’abedeb page – “Learn more about [Canadian Coast Salish] artist Susan Point….” are from the Seattle Art Museum and were sponsored by the Seattle Times – even the core mission of the RBCM  is treated like  an imported show.

Additionally, their admission fees are exorbitant and based on the experience provided, unwarranted.  At the risk of sounding like a commie, admission should be returned to its former state: free.  But if they foresee a price tag of several hundred million dollars, I suspect that ticket prices are going the other way.

I see they are calling for comment on their plans and are hosting open houses on March 6th and 7th.  Go to these.    Write to them and tell them what you think.  Read their “visioning brochure” (PDF) and squint for the word “research” in a footnote.  This is the cultural infrastructure of the Province for the next decades and the potential rebirth of a once cutting-edge, leading institution.  I hope they are building a monument to research and education and not a northern Disneyland.

The long tradition of stuffed animals at the museum continues.... source: rwongphoto.com

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8 responses to “Major expansion at the Royal B.C. Museum?

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. The museum had the same number of staff in the mid-70’s as it has now (excluding the staff in the archives that was recently added to the museum). Then it had no computing staff, no one taking money at the door, two directors instead of five, an admin section of about 6 people, no marketing section. Necessary changes many of these, but they have come at the expense of the curatorial and collections management staff. Archaeology had 12-14 staff (now 2), Ethnology maybe 6 or 8 staff (now about 2), there were two linguists working on indigenous languages, now there are none. The exhibits section is depopulated.

    The museum is no longer capable of reproducing itself – there are not enough curatorial staff to do the research or exhibits staff to make the research alive for a series of major permanent exhibits.

    Archaeologists now have to fight to get all their excavated materials accepted into the archaeology repository, with pressure placed on them to discard associated materials such as faunal remains (containing the ancient DNA history of many species in the province). Some have chosen to go to other smaller repositories.

    I don’t really blame the RBCM, they face very difficult decisions because they are not and have never been properly funded by the Province (except perhaps during part of the 1970’s). The current buildings were paid for by the Feds as part of centennial funding – Premier W.A.C. Bennett even tried to take the curatorial tower over as a government admin building right after it was built and only backed down after threats from the Feds.

    The RBCM is missing out on a important budget source though. The City of Victoria and most surrounding local governments are the only sizeable municipalities in the province that do not have their own museums – this is because they get a free ride from having the RBCM in town. They should either start their own musuems, or contribute a budget to the RBCM that is proportional to what other comparable sized muncipalities spend. Look at places like Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Kelowna, Burnaby, City of Vancouver and so on. Their museums are competent local museums with professional staff and significant budgets. Greater Victoria municipalities and taxpayers should be embarrassed at how little they spend on the preservation and interpretation of local heritage.

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  2. Thanks for the comment BCArchaeologist. Interesting numbers — I knew of the general picture but this kind of thing is hard to get a firm fix on. I like your phrase they are “no longer capable of reproducing themselves”. It seems to me they had a burst of creativity when the Old Town and Industrial History exhibits, the Natural history full-surround dioramas, and the interior Longhouse area were put it in. When was that, about 1975 or so?

    They’ve been living off that cultural capital ever since.

    Since then they lost the plot: the Living Ocean thing with the fake submarine and the diaphonous mermaid (and the wait around for tickets) was a disaster and they have already removed it. Since then, what have they done other than host a bunch of temporary shows, most of which don’t address their core mandate.

    True, if something isn’t broken then don’t fix it, and it is a testament to the vibrant institution it was in the 1970s that those core exhibits have aged so well. But it is a testament the way a tombstone is a testament. Seriously, what have they done as an institution in the last 30 years that is similarly innovative?

    Also, great point about the municipalities needing to step up: Esquimalt, Saanich, Oak Bay, Victoria, time to make an investment in cultural and natural history of southern Vancouver Island, whether with the RBCM or else on your own. You look bad on a cultural front compared to much smaller, much poorer towns in the boondocks.

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  3. Interesting and topical post, and thanks for the tip-off about the March open house. It seems likely that any expansion plans will be the definite shift to a Disneyland, edutainment kind of museum, rather than enhance and reinvigorate it as a curator of BC’s cultural and ethnographic history.

    I visited the Salish exhibit (when admission was free), and it was good, but the rest of the exhibits are really dated. The Living Land exhibit has been revamped (a bit) to feature more information about climate change, as well as the province’s paleo-history, but the style of the museum overall is rooted in something about of the 1970s, which is really sad.

    The new Nanaimo museum looks like it’s pretty good, though.

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  4. Hi Nevin, thanks for the comment. Some of the older exhibits have aged well — I mean, the simulated beach, for example, is still a striking exhibit and one you won’t see paralleled in many museums. But I agree that overall they have stagnated and it is a real shame. And consider that the Salish exhibit is a temporary one, when the museum itself is situated in the traditional territory of the Straits Salish people. That seems odd, to me. Indeed the museum building is on top of a Songhees site according to some early maps of Victoria Harbour.

    I’ll check out the Nanaimo museum site – thanks for the tip.

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  5. In 1993 when I was a Conservation intern for 7 months I was then and still now in awe of what has been accomplished by past and present staff that contributed not just their time but so much of themselves. It was the greatest team of bright people I ever had the pleasure of working with .No matter where I visit museums in the world RBCM will have the best memories for me because of the talent that created what you might now consider outdated. My professor once said “museums are revolving doors” and truly so. Like the tide ebbing and flowing somewhere ,someday new life will breathe again at RBCM. You have to have worked there to understand the huge effort it takes to create an exhibit . You can please some of the people some of the time but never all of them all of the time.Patience and support are what it needs now!

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  6. The staff are not the problem… The problem is lack of resources, as well as a departure from the RBCM’s mandate. The RBCM needs committed funding, which will allow it to put more resources into new exhibits, rather than trying to put on big shows that are irrelevant to BC history but are intended instead to attract tourists… We really need some more emphasis on cultivating our home grown culture here in BC. Yet we are stuck with (for the next 3 years anyway) a bunch of Philistenes running the show.

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  7. Hi Len — thanks for your comments. I wanted to make it clear that the people at the museum are the heart and soul of the place and the 1970s exhibitions were cutting edge and have aged well. But there is no more of that — and patience is all very well but when you see a loved institution drifting in an unfortunate direction then patience can be another word for just watching a slow motion train wreck.

    Nevin — you nailed it! The museum act (revised) makes it clear what the museum’s mandate is, but via the quasi-privatization of the museum, that core mandate is hard to achieve. I have to say, though, I am not convinced the NDP are less Philistinian (?) than the current mob in charge.

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  8. Even we in the good ol usa care about archaeological sites. We have a law that was passed in 1979 ARPA archaeological resource protection act. And in 1990 the NAGPRA native american graves protection repatriation act. Since both laws were passed we are still digging sites and disturbing burial sites. Every time someone is going to develop a site there we have a archaeological site. So instead of saying lets develop somewhere else, No we have money involved and when money is involved it becomes a lets dig quickly and get on with the job. If someone picks up a arrowhead they become a criminal ” i feel sorry for all the kid,s that do that”. And everything that is removed is somehow taken to a secret place, Ft sutter California, Sacremento California. And the public will never see it. I know i have paid taxes???? The glenrose cannery is like a old redwood tree, Once it is cut down it is gone forever! Archaeologist i don,t have any problems with you, It is the laws. I support you,re work.

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