Royal B.C. Museum refresh shifts gears in Victoria

New site plan to be created that aims to give venerable facility more than just a facelift

Victoria-based architect Paul Merrick

Jack Lohman was animated describing how the Royal B.C. Museum will morph from a facility that is “tired and in need of upgrades” to one that reaches “new levels of excellence.”

The museum CEO, who completes his first year on the job March 26, used Tuesday’s announcement of a top-notch architectural team for the museum’s major upgrade to explain his vision for the future.

Comparing the current entrance hall to that of a shopping mall, he called for the creation of a more welcoming and appropriate gateway to the exhibits.

Not only that, he said, the facility needs a refresh to make it more appealing and accessible to visitors, both locals and tourists.

“We know tourism here is a five-month, intense period, but we need to attract visitors all year round,” he said. “We have a huge local population that is very educated and deeply interested in history and culture. We need to make that offer to the local community, but at the same time we are a museum for the entire province.”

Despite the big-picture talk, the announcement Tuesday was merely the kickoff to six months of work to create a new master site plan for the museum precinct. The goal is to see significant changes by 2017 and completion of the work in time for B.C.’s sesquicentennial in 2021.

John McAslan’s internationally renowned London company will serve as lead architect in the creation of that plan, which also involves the B.C. Archives next door.

Recognizing the need to air out the museum’s offerings, he pointed to a need to “allow the building to breathe and be connected in a way that allows movement and circulation.”

Lohman distanced himself from a previous development plan that called for two more towers to be built onsite, a plan for which the museum received a rezoning for the property in 2011.

The idea of erecting two office towers “scared me,” Lohman said, adding he felt it was an inappropriate way to develop museum space. The overarching objective is to create a master plan for the existing site, obtaining better value for what’s already there, rather than creating a building plan, he said.

Victoria Coun. Pam Madoff, city council’s unofficial heritage watchdog for more than a decade, sounded excited about the possibilities for the site, especially with McAslan on board.

Aware of the type of major transformations the U.K. company has undertaken – rebuilding the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or refurbishing a stodgy King’s Cross Station in London before the 2012 Olympics, for example – Madoff’s eyes lit up talking about the opportunity to remake the provincial museum.

“It’s his principles that interest me,” she said of the vision McAslan and colleagues have demonstrated. “It’s about recognizing the value in what’s there while being sensitive (to the surroundings). I’ve never felt so optimistic.”

The 2011 rezoning was a painful process, Madoff recalled. “Those (ideas) were built on a business model,” she says. “Today’s plan is what does the museum need?”

Local architect Paul Merrick, whose firm will play a leading role in developing and interpreting the visions of the McAslan group.

Merrick recalled that the museum was built by the W.A.C. Bennett government in the rather utilitarian style of the 1960s.

“It was essentially a black box that was habited by experiences, or what we call ‘exhibits’ today,” he said.

While technology improvements and additions such as the National Geographic IMAX Theatre have created added value for the facility, he said, they haven’t done anything to remove impedances to first-time visitors.

Merrick considers the corner of Belleville and Government streets Ground Zero for tourists in Victoria, given its proximity to the legislature, the Fairmont Empress Hotel and the Inner Harbour.

The museum is juxtaposed between those two architectural icons, he said, yet often gets missed, in part due to its somewhat nondescript appearance.

“People can be standing right there, but still have to ask “Where is the Royal B.C. Museum?’”

editor@vicnews.com