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Rob Shaw: Old Town, new signs, as NDP tries to sweep away Royal BC Museum debacle

After 16 months, the RBCM has settled on 'contextual panels' as a solution to decolonize the exhibit
Royal BC Museum
The Royal BC Museum in Victoria is reopening its Old Town exhibit 16 months later with signs to stimulate critical thinking.

More than 16 months after the BC NDP government shuttered the popular Old Town exhibit at the Royal BC Museum in a bid to “decolonize” the institution, New Democrats have abruptly announced they are re-opening the attraction in a new and improved format.

The solution?

Adding some signs.

No wait, sorry, “contextual panels” as the government called them in a news release Tuesday.

“These panels will encourage critical thinking and ignite imagination, encouraging visitors to consider additional stories that could be shared,” read the release.

“We look forward to welcoming visitors back to Old Town with this new approach,” added museum CEO Alicia Dubois.

You couldn’t write a more laughable conclusion to the entire half-baked, bungled, tone-deaf RBCM saga if you tried.

After a year and a half of intense debate about the clash between the province’s colonial past and modern-day reconciliation, the whole thing boils down to simply tacking up a few new signs about critical thinking?

Whatever these amazing signs look like, duplicates should be printed and hung on the walls of the NDP cabinet room in the hopes they spur better critical thinking there, too.

It appears to have already worked in the case of Tourism Minister Lana Popham, who has quietly emerged as one of his more competent ministers in Premier David Eby’s government after being installed in the post five months ago.

Popham has set about undoing the museum fiasco, which includes fallout from former premier John Horgan’s decision to abandon plans to rebuild the museum at a cost of $1 billion.

In the process, Popham has run headlong into a senior leadership team at the museum that appears hesitant to follow her lead. So, she’s put on a masterclass in publicly end-running them.

It started in January when Dubois made clear in interviews that she had an arduous and lengthy plan for discussing the museum’s future that could result in the third floor being frozen in limbo for years.

Shortly after, Popham told reporters at the legislature she doesn’t think that’s what the public wants.

“My expectation as minister is that the museum will open to the public in the way that they want," she said in mid-February, about Old Town. “People miss it. They're passionate about it and they want access to it.”

To push the issue, Popham offered reporters a tour of Old Town — something museum officials had never agreed to since declaring the space would be demolished a year previously.

During the tour, the media discovered Old Town was very much still intact and mostly untouched.

Dubois admitted the space could “perhaps” be partially reopened, one day, after being suitably altered. Popham steamrolled her. “The sooner the better,” she told reporters on the tour.

Dubois outlined a three-year plan to reimagine and re-envision the museum. Popham undercut her with her own, more streamlined, vision.

“I personally would like to see that there is more access to the third floor and Old Town by the summer,” she said.

Behind-the-scenes, Popham then asked the museum to officially prepare a reopening plan.

“I was hoping that it would be open in June,” she told me Tuesday. “And then they came back with a work plan that showed they could get it open on the 29th of July. I said, 'sold.'”

Popham said she had received “hundreds of emails” from people who wanted Old Town reopened.

In the press release announcing just that on Tuesday, Popham said: “We have heard you.”

The reopening plan also includes using a storefront in Old Town for a “new perspective” display, and replacing old silent movies of Charlie Chaplin in the exhibit’s Majestic Theatre with “historical footage showcasing the diversity of B.C.’s voices and stories.”

I asked Popham on Tuesday if it was a mistake for her government to have closed Old Town in the first place.

“That’s a good question,” she said, pausing. “I think what I can say is that museums right around the world are at a real crossroads, and they’re all trying to grapple with what their future is, what their responsibility is in the world.”

For the record, that’s not a no.

There is clearly disagreement and tension between Popham, a new minister under a new premier, and Dubois, a museum CEO appointed by the former minister and former premier.

Popham is on the street, listening to the complaints from Greater Victoria residents about the museum, as well as those in her nearby riding of Saanich South. Dubois is sequestered inside the museum, crafting multi-year exercises in group workshopping.

The re-opening of Old Town, while laughable in some ways, still marks a significant milestone in the behind-the-scenes power struggle for the museum’s future.

Popham is winning. And in the process, she’s starting the thankless job of slowly undoing the political damage the museum fiasco has caused B.C. New Democrats.

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]