Historic artwork goes undercover at B.C. legislature
It had all the makings of a political coverup.
If you’ve been a reporter for as long as I have, you learn to spot the subtle signs. So as soon as I arrived at the B.C. legislature yesterday morning, I knew something was up. Call it instinct. Call it experience. Call it huge chunks of particleboard blocking the doorway to the lower rotunda.
Either way, I ignored it completely until colleague Les Leyne remarked, somewhat cryptically: “I see they’ve started working on the murals.”
You see how subtle the clues are sometimes?
I got his meaning right away, though. The murals have been a thorny issue at the legislature for years.
Painted by artist George Southwell from 1933 to 1935, the murals — Labour, Justice, Enterprise and Courage — depict four scenes in the province's colonial history: The building of Fort Victoria in 1843; Chief Justice Matthew Begbie holding court in the 1860s; Hudson's Bay Co. chief factor James Douglas landing at Clover Point in 1842; and a meeting between captains Vancouver and Quadra at Nootka Sound in 1792.
While some consider them works of art, others have long complained about the demeaning images of bare-breasted aboriginal women at work and an aboriginal man appearing before Begbie. So last year, politicians on both sides of the house decided to remove the murals in the spirit of the province’s new relationship with First Nations.
The issue then vanished from the headlines. Until yesterday. When the particleboard appeared, I placed a call to my legislative Deep Throat — Speaker Bill Barisoff.
Now, take it from me, you don’t want to press a hard case like Barisoff on a sensitive story like this, so I lobbed a softball question right off the bat.
“I just wanted to talk to you about murals,” I said. “I noticed work has started on that today. Can you tell me what’s involved there?”
Maybe I caught him off guard, or maybe he was just ready to spill. Either way, he cracked like ancient plaster, coughing up details like so much white dust. Turns out, it’s a frame job. Barisoff explained that the original plan to remove the murals proved too expensive — somewhere in excess of $1 million. Also, the contractors couldn’t guarantee they’d be able to remove the murals without damaging them. So they settled on a coverup. “What’s happening now,” he said, singing like a canary, “is they’re actually putting up a frame over top, so that there’ll be an air space in behind.”
The process will preserve the murals until such time as technology improves to allow their safe removal, he said.
In the meantime, nobody will even know they’re there.
“It’s supposed to be all dressed up so that it looks as good as we can make it look to fit with the architecture and everything that’s there,” he said.
Once completed in the next couple of weeks, the lower rotunda will possibly provide a gallery for local or First Nations art, Barisoff said.
So there you have it. Another day, another coverup exposed. It’s all in a day’s work at the legislature, really. If you don’t believe me, check out Leyne’s column on page A10; he’s cracked a whole other case.