The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is “getting on in age” and needs a significant overhaul – one that may ultimately include a name, change too.
But right now, the NWT government has so many other funding priorities that finding the money to revamp the territory’s most prominent museum is a struggle, the education and culture minister told MLAs this week.
Minister RJ Simpson reflected the conflicting concerns of an ageing museum and a strained budget when he said: “I am not saying this is going to happen any time soon, even though something has to happen soon.”
The Yellowknife-based museum celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, having first opened in 1979.
In the fall of 2018, the NWT government embarked on a study designed to assess the urgency of various issues with the building – and set out how the territory might “create a fully functioning territorial heritage centre … robust enough to last another 40 years.”
Eighteen separate “critical issues” were identified at the time, among them the lack of an elevator, “crumbling” infrastructure, poor heating and air conditioning that jeopardizes the preservation of items, the lack of a museum store, and a lack of teaching space.
This week, pressed by MLAs on the museum’s future as they scrutinized its budget for the coming year, Simpson returned to a key concern: the current building’s shortage of storage space.
“The museum is getting on in age right now,” the minister said. “I did a tour of there not long ago. There are sections of it where dehumidifiers that have to be emptied nightly by security guards.
“The space is an issue. The Prince of Wales Heritage Centre serves a central agency function for the GNWT, storing many of its archives, so we have a lot to store. In addition to all of the cultural treasures that we have in the territory, there are just a lot of documents, and space has become an issue.”
The problem, however, is the expected cost of creating a new building – or even significantly redeveloping the current one, itself already said to be a $32-million facility.
“I just want to temper everyone’s expectations here,” Simpson added on Tuesday. “This would not be a cheap build.
“We have a lot of needs in the territory, and a building of this magnitude – that has to be built to these specifications – would be quite expensive.
“This is not a done deal and it’s going to be a large, large expense if it happens.”
Combine with a campus?
John MacDonald, the NWT government’s assistant deputy minister of education and culture, said an assessment of the existing facility has now been completed.
Some conceptual designs for an improved building, and associated cost estimates, should be provided to the minister by April, he said.
Kevin O’Reilly, the MLA for Frame Lake, raised the possibility of combining a new museum building with either a polytechnic university campus or visitors’ centre.
Replying to the suggestion of a combined museum and university campus, Simpson said: “I haven’t really put much thought into that but I think that would be an avenue, perhaps, to pursue, especially in terms of capital funding.
“The federal government or other entities might be more open to supporting a museum project if it does have that association, given that there is also a research component, as well.”
Rita Mueller, deputy minister of the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, said the work done to date on the museum’s future had focused on fixing existing issues rather than looking at ways to combine multiple facilities.
One method of generating revenue to pay for a revamp could be an entry fee. The museum is currently free to attend, though visitors can leave donations if they wish.
Mueller said between $10,000 and $11,000 annually is donated by the more than 60,000 people who visit. That money goes toward educational programming.
“I am sure many people, if not most people, don’t donate anything,” said the minister, but his deputy sounded a note of caution about any aspiration to introduce fees for entry.
“A fee often does present barriers for certain individuals or families from coming in and participating in the activities as much as they want,” said Mueller.
Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, felt the museum may still be missing an opportunity by remaining entirely free to enter.
Saying he felt NWT residents should retain the right to free entry, Johnson said: “I look at all the tourists who go in there and it’s completely free – and I wonder why we’re not making some money off of that.”
Ditch the prince?
Johnson had other concerns during Tuesday’s session at the legislature. As discussion of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre ran on, he confessed he had to look up a key piece of information online.
” I had to Google… just so everyone is aware. Charles is the Prince of Wales,” Johnson declared. “I didn’t actually know that.”
A large portrait of Prince Charles – heir to the throne behind his mother, Queen Elizabeth II – has called the museum home for many years. (Recently, to occasional queries about its ongoing relevance.)
Prince Charles officiated at the opening of the museum on April 16, 1979.
“I would be very happy if we changed the name,” said Johnson this week.
O’Reilly concurred. “Is that something that we might look at, you know, finding a better name for?” he asked. “Something that reflects our culture here more appropriately?”
Simpson said the name appeared, at face value, to be “a simple fix.”
MacDonald, the assistant deputy minister, suggested it may come down to what kind of reaction the NWT might get from His Royal Highness, should word reach Clarence House (his official residence in London).
“This is definitely an interesting question in terms of protocol,” said MacDonald.
“One of the things we have wanted to look into is whether a name change for the facility would trigger any issues with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales from a protocol perspective.
“We are still in the research stage, to try to understand what that would entail and who to actually speak to.
“However, we are hoping to wait until after there is a bit more clarity on the planning study before we really dive into some of those questions.”