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Royal London Wax Museum collection in need of a new home

The bodies, each wrapped in cellophane and identified by name with a felt marker, are stacked in the loft of Ken Lane's garage.

The heads, close to 350 of them, have been lovingly preserved, placed in cardboard boxes in his basement.

Mr. Lane is no Dexter wannabe - he's the former owner of Victoria's Royal London Wax Museum, and he's hoping that he won't need to dispose of his hundreds of historical figures.

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"I'm not ready to start selling them off just yet," said Mr. Lane, whose family operated the popular Victoria tourist attraction for more than 40 years until it closed this fall. "I'm still hoping to reopen somewhere, but I need some time to figure out what the next generation of wax museums is going to look like."

Located in the CPR Steamship Terminal building across from the provincial legislature, the wax museum was forced to shut down in September to make way for $3-million in upgrades to the heritage building, designed by architects Francis Rattenbury and P.L. James in 1924.

The property's owner, the Provincial Capital Commission, assured Mr. Lane the museum would be welcome back once the renovations are completed in 2011.

However, efforts to negotiate a new lease broke down when the PCC refused to extend the wax museum's current deal beyond 2013, making it impossible to justify the expense of reinstalling the exhibits.

"It's going to take $1-million to put the wax museum back together and it will take about a year to do that, so we wouldn't have reopened until 2012," Mr. Lane said. "I needed at least three five-year terms to make it work."

Earlier this month, the PCC issued a request for proposals for new tenants, in particular " self-sustaining" operations such as offices, restaurants, retail shops and "commercial exhibits."

During its final decade, the wax museum drew more than 300,000 visitors a year, 100,000 fewer paying customers than it had 25 years ago but easily enough to qualify as self sustaining, Mr. Lane said.

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In recent years, the museum had been under increasing pressure to vacate the premises, Mr. Lane said, a dynamic he blamed on the politics of operating a private business in such a prominent public location.

"It was like long-term shadow boxing," Mr. Lane said. "There are people who covet that building for other purposes and the politics of it all got worse as the years went on."

PCC chief financial officer Rick Crosby denied forcing the wax museum out. "All the tenants were offered the chance to come back under their existing leases, and all chose not to," he said. "The wax museum asked for a 15- to 20-year lease extension and we weren't able to accommodate that."

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority and U.S. Customs are also former tenants of the building.

Among those who have expressed interest in the property is Oak Bay Marine Group founder Bob Wright, who is touting a multimillion-dollar high-tech attraction focusing on native, Victoria and B.C. history.

Mr. Wright's company also owns Undersea World, a long-time tourist attraction located next to the wax museum's former home.

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Uneasy about the long-term costs of keeping the museum's contents at a commercial facility, Mr. Lane and his wife sold their home in Langford this fall and moved to a house in Saanich with more storage space.

Mr. Lane, who ran the family business for 25 years, declined to estimate the value of the collection, which includes a number of "priceless" historical artifacts.

Noting that Barack Obama's head alone is worth almost $20,000, he said it would be easy to sell off the collection piece by piece and retire in comfort.

Instead, he'll spend the winter visiting North American trade shows and tourist attractions in search of ideas to include in his museum's next incarnation.

Now in his fifties, Mr. Lane remains entranced by the romantic notion that famous faces carved in wax can bring history to life in a way that's unmatched by any other medium. "The stories of the lives of all the people we have represented in wax have a lot to tell us."

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