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Rob Shaw: Under David Eby, Royal Museum of BC won't be much different, just not the same

The power struggle between the minister and the CEO is over, but the long-term vision is unclear
Royal BC Museum
The Royal BC Museum in Victoria will get a few changes here and there, but this government hasn't spelled out its grand plans.

B.C.’s provincial museum could be back to a kind of functional normal by the end of this year, as the New Democrat government carefully sweeps up the mess it left from a bungled three-year overhaul.

Tourism Minister Lana Popham said she not only expects the popular Old Town exhibit to reopen in late July, but the replica of Captain George Vancouver’s ship should be back for the public to tour by Christmas.

It’s a remarkable reversal by a new tourism minister, under a new premier, who has pivoted 180 degrees away from John Horgan’s plan to rip out the museum’s most popular exhibits because they were too focused on European colonial history.

That transition culminated last week with the resignation of Royal BC Museum CEO Alicia Dubois, who had been hired by the previous premier’s administration to decolonize the museum. She refused to stick around as the plans were watered down amid sustained public backlash.

Dubois cited “museum upheaval” and family pressures in her resignation letter (which the museum, in its continued tone deafness, refused to release until forced under the public records law).

“The key mandate changes since I started have proved to be a turning point for the museum and left me unable to advance the priorities I was specifically hired to accomplish,” wrote Dubois.

The NDP government’s original plans to close the museum’s landmark attractions, and then replace the entire thing with a new $1-billion facility, proved immensely unpopular. Horgan had to backtrack and apologize in early 2022.

The political fallout left the museum in limbo for the better part of a year.

When David Eby took power, he appointed Popham to chart a new course. The museum, a Crown corporation, was hemorrhaging money as memberships dried up due to a lack of attractions.

A brief power struggle ensued between Popham and Dubois over the museum’s future. On the one side, a CEO hired under a previous mandate to decolonize and modernize the museum. On the other, a new minister intent on re-opening and restoring a beleaguered public institution.

Technically, Popham couldn’t give Dubois direct orders. But she began installing her own members on the RBCM board. And Popham went public with deadlines she hoped the museum would meet in reopening Old Town and the third floor. The museum’s senior leadership team was dragged along in the minister’s wake.

“For me, using not just the arts and culture lens but also the tourism lens, it was really important for me that people were able to have access to that third floor,” Popham told me in an interview this week.

“I made it very clear that I was hoping that we could have a deadline of this summer to make sure at least Old Town, or the majority of Old Town, would be open. I think I was really clear on that.” That led to a “crossroads” about the future of the museum, said Popham.

“With the CEO resigning and not feeling like she wanted to be part of it at this point in time, I'm really excited to have an interim CEO while we search for a more permanent CEO that can fulfill this vision,” she said.

The new NDP vision for the museum does not end its decolonization efforts, but it does reset the process. There will be new rounds of public consultation, this time with the intent on getting widespread public buy-in before announcing major reforms.

In the meantime, signs will go up on the third floor to give more context about the Indigenous history not reflected in the old attractions.

It’s not entirely clear what the new premier’s long-term vision is for the museum.

Eby said this week, despite the turmoil, he intends to push forward with plans to build a new RBCM archives building in neighbouring Colwood. But even that project carries with it considerable political risk, after cost estimates ballooned almost $100 million over-budget, to $270 million, and the completion date was pushed back at least a year.

The Opposition BC United, which labelled the original $1 billion museum replacement plan a “boondoggle” are salivating at the chance of criticizing the NDP for an over-budget, delayed, collections building.

“This is a time of renewal for the Royal BC Museum; decisions about how we ensure the protection of the priceless heritage of the people of British Columbia, as well as respect our commitments around reconciliation and our relationship with Indigenous people in this province,” Eby said this week.

“It's certainly a challenging piece of work, but it's also exciting and important work.”

It’s a bit vague. But the short-term seems clear: A provincial museum much like the one we had before all this mess started several years ago.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]