What's next for the old Royal Alberta Museum?
Concerned residents make plea for repurposing the site
A community walk around the old Royal Alberta Museum site Sunday afternoon has reignited concerns for the building while a decision from the provincial government on its future remains in the balance.
The modernist building in Glenora has been closed to the public since December 2015 as Alberta’s artifacts made the move to a bigger space downtown. The site is still occupied by some of the thousands of archives as staff plan to complete the full move by 2020.
But even without the artifacts inside, residents are hoping to restore the 1967 building that has become history itself.
Alberta architect Darrel Babuk, who led the Jane’s Walk around the exterior of the site, said the Glenora building has become a landmark in its own right and needs to be saved to protect the stories it holds.
“It collected all of our stories and it itself became a great story,” Babuk said ahead of the walk. “To vacate and move into another building somewhere else, we’ve kind of ignored all of those stories embodied in the building. It goes against what a museum is.”
While walking around the outside of the building, Babuk highlighted glyph artwork on the side of the building, statues and sculptures all telling a different story about the history of the province. About 50 people and two dogs attended the site tour, culminating in a lengthy discussion about saving the building and how it can be used in the future.
Repurposing the structure won’t be an easy task, Babuk said, with asbestos and mould lingering inside and the challenge to modify the use of a building that was built specifically to function as a museum.
“That’s the problem with this building. A museum doesn’t lend itself to anything,” he said, noting the large site contains a 420-seat lecture hall, meeting rooms and a full archival storage space that meets international standards. “We need to find some sort of a use that can use a facility like this.”
One such idea floating around from a former curator at the museum is for the University of Alberta to store and highlight its massive collections in the space.
Philip Currie, a U of A professor in dinosaur paleobiology, said the university has 18 million catalogued specimens scattered across the campus in 25 different collections — some that aren’t well-noticed by the public.
“A museum that was built to be a museum would be good as a museum,” Currie said to a round of applause from the tour.
The curator of paleontology at the RAM from 1976-1980, Currie said the old museum is a perfect site to store the exhibits and encourage public access.
“The situation there for collections is so much superior to anything we have on the university campus. It’ll spend some money to fix it up, but still a lot cheaper than anything we can do on campus. It would be a very logical thing for the university to move its collections into the museum.”
Costs to restore the museum into a usable site won’t be cheap, but Currie said he sees it as an investment worth making by the university in partnership with the province.
The former NDP government issued a request for proposals in March 2016 for a contractor to tear down the structure, but then launched an online campaign for public proposals in December 2017.
Still open for submissions, Alberta Infrastructure spokeswoman Jessica Johnson said more than 400 responses have been received.
“Decisions on facilities like the Glenora site are guided by evolving government needs, available budget and how those needs fit relative to other funding priorities,” Johnson said in an email Friday. “There are no plans yet for the future of the Glenora site, but we will look at all options regarding its future use. We continue to invite the public to provide comments online because we understand this is a topic they are interested in.”
Glenora resident June Acorn, 88, couldn’t attend the walk but has been invested in saving the site since the announced closure. She launched a petition in 2016 to save the building that has now garnered nearly 9,000 signatures.
As to why she is so invested in saving the building, Acorn’s answer was simple.
“It is so important to me because I am an Edmontonian.”