RBCM plans for the future

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A bigger, modern Royal B.C. Museum will rise at the corner of Belleville and Government Streets according to ambitious plans to more than double in size by 2025. The RBCM has launched a renewal process, starting with some unfinished business to get the zoning right on its 6.7-acre property.

The land, which includes the museum and provincial archives, native plant garden, and carillon, as well as Thunderbird Park, Helmcken House, and the original St. Ann’s school, is actually zoned for duplexes (as is the square block next door with the 110-year-old legislative buildings). Only Helmcken House, built in 1853, actually conforms to the R-2 zoning.

The museum is applying to the city of Victoria for a unique, comprehensive development zone to regularize the current non- conforming uses of museum, retail shop, café, IMAX theatre, park, restaurant, education, and parking. It also wants to add business offices and multiple residential uses.

“We are indeed embarking on a journey of change,” says museum CEO Pauline Rafferty.

Expectations are that rezoning will occur late in 2011, and the first construction — a new collections building — would start at least three years after that. Located at the rear of the property, it would rise up to 14 storeys and contain museum offices and improved storage for millions of museum artifacts, specimens, documents, and records in the provincial archives, some now stored offsite for lack of space. It would also let the public view collections in storage and see restoration work going on behind the scenes, not possible now in the museum’s crowded spaces.

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“We have significant artifacts stored below sea level,” says Rafferty.

The present RBCM lacks modern temperature and humidity controls to preserve fragile objects for the future, she says. It also doesn’t meet earthquake standards — the original exhibition building with galleries and dioramas would be refitted to meet current seismic regulations to keep it from collapsing.

Architect Peter De Hoog’s plan for the RBCM would demolish the present archives building and John Fannin curatorial tower to create a “galleria building” for enlarged restaurant and retail space and a new major entrance lobby and public plaza at the corner.
The Crown corporation spends $20 million a year — only $11 million of that from the provincial government — and is a major part of Victoria’s tourism industry. But Rafferty acknowledges that attendance over the years has been flat, partly because of its cramped quarters. In 2009, just 346,000 visitors came through the doors, although the periodic blockbuster exhibitions boost the numbers — Titanic in 2007 pushed attendance to 450,000. The museum had a $491,000 operating deficit in the last year.

Overall, the development plan would see the RBCM “become B.C.’s leading cultural centre,” Rafferty says.

No costs are included in the plans, but it’s clearly an expensive project running into many millions. The museum would grow by half a million square feet — equivalent to one of Victoria’s shopping centres — to create an RBCM of 895,000 square feet, big enough for the next century.