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.