The Royal BC Museum (RBCM) has been coming under a lot of fire recently.
It may be a childhood or current favourite for many Islanders and tourists, but there’s a lot to unpack regarding their recent (not to mention historical) practices.
Employees have brought forward numerous accusations of systemic racism against the museum.
Lucy Bell, the former head of the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation Department, left the position saying she’d gone through years of discriminatory behaviour from her colleagues.
Troy Sebastian, a curator of the Indigenous collection, also resigned, publically calling the RBCM a ‘wicked place.’
Following a 2021 investigation by The BC Public Service Industry, their accusations have proven to be far more than a few disgruntled employees.
The investigation backed up their claims. According to the report, Indigenous staff at the museum experienced it as a ‘toxic workplace characterized by fear and mistrust.’
Three museum board members left following the report. The museum underwent a complete “re-brand,” adding a new CEO and a new vice-president of Indigenous Partnerships. RBCM went through a review of its indigenous policies and created new Indigenous-led positions.
However, despite these changes, public opinion about the museum doesn’t seem to be swayed.
Criticisms reached a boiling point following the announcement of a $789 million rebuild last year.
Former Premier John Horgen quickly backpedalled, reportedly surprised by the backlash against what he thought would be a feel-good announcement.
The Opposition Liberals went on the warpath; public outcry called the move out of touch during a public health crisis. The government also got heavy pushback was immediate from many first nations communities.
“I made the wrong call,” Horgan said at a press conference in June 2022. “I made a call when British Columbians were thinking about other concerns.”
Tŝilhqot’in Chief Joe Alphonse summarized concerns to CBC, “They have stolen artifacts that belong to Indigenous groups and First Nations and have not expressed the intention of returning them or asked how we would like to display them or what we would like to see done with them.”
Now that the rebuild has been put on pause – the artifacts are still housed in a building that’s not structurally sound, and the future of RBCM is in question.
The Tsehsaht Nation played a big part in getting the rebuild called off. Their open letter to many ministers and MLAs got lots of media.
In the letter, Tseshaht said, “the province needs to put the brakes on this work, develop plans to empower Nations and return items back to their rightful owners.”
Tseshaht Elected Chief Councillor Waamiiš, Ken Watts, recently did an interview with Hath-Shilth-Sa on how the Nation would like to see the museum evolve in the coming years.
“The premier took the most accountability of any premier that I can remember. I think that’s awesome. We need more displays of humility like that from governments,” said Watts. “But at the end of the day, the province needs to step up financially.”
The RBCM holds approximately 225,000 Indigenous artifacts, and Watts argues that some money would be best put towards moving them back to their rightful communities.
“Many items may well stay there at the museum – there needs to be recognition of the Indigenous story at the Victoria museum too, and there is also a desire to share our culture,” Watt’s said, adding that many items were wrongfully taken. “Some are sacred and are not meant to be on display, or handled by just anyone. But it should be up to each Nation to decide what stays and what goes.”
Moving some items could also create more tourism opportunities further north on the Island, where artifacts could be stewarded by those most knowledgeable about them.
“We are located in the corridor to the West Coast, one of the busiest areas for tourism in the province,” said Watts. “Whether here or over in Tofino or Ucluelet, building our own museum or a Nuu-chah-nulth-wide cultural centre for these items, it could really help with our own tourism development. But to build our own facilities, we need time, effort, space, and money,” said Watts.
“I am hopeful that in my lifetime, a lot of those items will be returned.”
Whether or not the museum decides to give back stolen items, they almost certainly won’t be staying in the same iconic 1960s building.
The province has found many structural and safety problems with the museum’s current building related to seismic, flooding, access, asbestos and lead issues.
Without the rebuild, it almost certainly have to be demolished.
Construction of a new $224-million Museum Collections and Research Building in Colwood is still ongoing and will likely be completed by 2025.
But what items will be moved there is still up for debate.
If you have thoughts on where the museum’s future should stand, you’ll have the chance to weigh in.
RBCM has announced several in-person and online public engagement sessions to “listen to the people of B.C. and gather feedback.”
They’re inviting you to join, and help shape their path forward.