Home Museum institution Vaughn Palmer: John Horgan can only blame himself for museum misstep

Vaughn Palmer: John Horgan can only blame himself for museum misstep

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Opinion: No design, no business plan, unexplained early demolition – is it any wonder the BC Museum announcement landed with a thump

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VICTORIA — When Premier John Horgan announced the provincial museum’s billion-dollar overhaul last week, some business and community leaders were surprised the existing institution would close in September and the replacement won’t be ready for eight years.

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“It was not clear to everyone how long the closure would last,” says Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

“We heard it would be three to five years,” he told Gregor Craigie during an interview on CBC’s On the Island this week. “The museum is one of the keystones for visitors to the area.”

Williams, who was present at the announcement last Friday, and said “there was a pretty intense, palpable sense of energy in the room.”

It’s probably because the Prime Minister pointed out the good news that the government was spending $1 billion on a new state-of-the-art archives building and museum.

Horgan never mentioned that the tourism sector and the downtown business district would have to go without museums for eight full years.

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One had to read page three of the press release to find that the museum “will close on September 6 (and) the new, modernized Provincial Museum is expected to open in 2030.”

The prime minister also didn’t have a good justification when asked why the eight-year shutdown, given that the government is four years away from starting construction on the replacement.

“Tourism will be stifled for a while,” he conceded, “but will expand to a level we’ve never seen before, bringing more and more people to British Columbia.”

Choked for a period? The government says nearly 900,000 people visit the museum every year.

The Prime Minister’s ruthless construction schedule means seven million fewer visits to a tourist town still recovering from the pandemic.

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As for Tourism Minister Melanie Mark, she was (by her own admission) caught up in the emotion of the moment.

At one point, she referred to the “Beloved Old Town” exhibit that used to be on the third floor of the existing museum.

Last fall, she presided over the permanent closure and removal of the Old City on the grounds that it was part of an institution that needed to be “decolonized” immediately.

It was only after an outcry from residents of the capital region who really loved the old city that Mark abandoned the rhetoric of “decolonization” and began to refer to the need to “modernize” and seismically upgrade the museum.

But Horgan himself gave some insight into what New Democrats really thought of Old Town and the museum in general.

Last Friday, he described the museum as a place where he sends visitors he doesn’t want to meet when they come down. He also said he had had enough of the old town: “I yearn for something new.”

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Listening to the premier and the minister, one gets the impression that New Democrats are determined to tear down the provincial museum as soon as possible and commit its contents to memory.

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Indeed, a longtime museum insider speculates that New Democrats want to “Site C” the museum project.

It’s a reference to how BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark ensured construction of the Site C dam was “past the point of return” in the 2017 election.

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As turned out to be the case when Horgan took over.

On Thursday, Horgan acknowledged that the museum’s announcement “landed with a thump”.

Switching to lecture mode, he told reporters that “the announcement was inappropriately characterised. … It was certainly not our intention to sound deaf to the challenges facing British Columbians.

Now let’s see: the government announces a billion-dollar project with no design, no rationalization for the eight-year closure and no explanation for the designation of an award-winning museum in a “dismantling” in September.

Plus, no business plan to answer all the unanswered questions.

And he wonders why he landed with a thud.

Finance Minister Selina Robinson informed the legislature this week that a comprehensive business plan was approved by the Treasury Board cabinet committee last March.

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Robinson, who chairs the Treasury Board, said he understands all the elements of a proper plan: budget, schedule, risk analysis, procurement strategy, consideration of alternatives.

But when the opposition asked for specifics, Robinson repeatedly – I did 19 times – referred those questions to Mark.

Of course, Robinson was well aware that the legislative debate over the budget and Mark’s spending plan had taken place in March, around the same time that Robinson presented the business plan without disclosing it publicly.

Still, Robinson declined to confirm exactly when the business plan went through Treasury Board.

“After so much tap dancing, a performing arts center should have been built,” joked Liberal MP and Finance Critic Peter Milobar.

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The tourism minister, struggling to contain the fallout from the billion-dollar announcement, promised to publish a business plan by “the end of the week”.

On Thursday, she postponed it until next Wednesday, saying the delay was due “to the complex nature of the project”.

More likely, a group of officials will spend the weekend with banners of whiteouts and black censorship, removing anything that could actually shed light on this mess.

“I very much regret that the jewel of our collective history has become political football,” the Prime Minister said on Thursday.

He has only himself and his minister to blame.

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