by Robin Nelson
I am getting ready to start interviews for the Dawson City Museum (DCM) Project – yay!
This is my third big interview project. For my MMSt, I interviewed museum professionals about the influence of cultural policy on museum public programming (Nelson 2015). For my PhD, I interviewed Ontario Museum Advisors and people associated with the Ontario museum associations about the evolution of Ontario community museum policy (Nelson 2021).
For both degrees, I did some research methods courses that covered interviewing. However, I learnt far more from my experiences than I did from the classroom. The most important lesson was the importance of pre-interview research.
Why is pre-research important?
When I started interviewing, I did not do a lot of preparation work. I wanted to learn from people. Their narratives frame and focus document research, preventing a lot of unnecessary labour. However, some people (understandably – They are giving me their time!) get annoyed when you ask questions that could be easily answered in an archive. Interviews go much better when the participant is not annoyed at you.
Pre-research has also helped me ask better questions. Within the blog on interview preparation (here), I posted my question guide, which I will use during the DCM project interviews to ask every participant the same basic set of questions. However, my interviews are semi-structured and conversational. As people answer, it is important to be able to understand what they are saying and ask relevant follow up questions.
For example, during my interviews on Ontario community museum policy, I had questions about the role of each level of government. When I asked about the federal contributions, a few people told me that they don’t access federal programs. However, I already had a basic understanding of the federal support they accessed because I read Canadian Revenue Agency reports (such a useful resource for research on museums that are registered charities), annual reports, and other documents.
Knowing about the federal contributions, I could ask a follow up question – What about _____? Most often, people were forgetting that Young Canada Works, which is administered through the Canadian Museums Association, is a federal program. Asking the follow up question provided participants with the opportunity to highlight the significance of employment programs (or whatever federal support had slipped their mind). Alternatively, it enabled some people to explain why they had not mentioned it (sometimes people defined federal support to community museums as relatively insignificant).
What have I done so far for the DCM Project?
I have done some preliminary work to understand both Yukon Community Museum Policy and the Dawson City Museum’s development. Due to COVID, I have not been able to hang out in the DCM archives (their corporate index is amazing! I am excited to get access… one day) so my research on the Museum is very preliminary. However, I have read everything I could get ahold of on Yukon’s community museum policies, which will help me ask follow up questions to understand the relationship between the Museum’s development and government action.
Although Yukon has an explicit community museum policy (here), I am not simply referring to policies called community museum policy. Museum policy can refer to government (or related agencies) action or inaction that influence community museums. So, I have considered a broader range of actions that have relevance to the DCM. Once I start interviews, I expect I will learn about more government actions (or inactions) I have not considered or discover that something I think is important now does not actually have a significant effect on the Museum.
As a starting point, I searched for museums in the Yukon Legislative Assembly’s hansard minutes (here).
The search has led me to read about support and regulation for museums, heritage, employment, the economy, and tourism. There are a few documents I am waiting to for access, but I have read tourism, economic, and museum related reports, policies, and programs. I have over a hundred pages of notes, and I would like to share some of my initial impressions!
Before I begin the interviews, I am going to document my initial assumptions and conclusions. It will be interesting to see what changes and what areas become emphasized as people (not documents) help shape the narrative in response to the question – How has the Dawson City Museum developed in relation to government and community action?
As a starting point, I am going to answer three questions:
- What rationale underlines and legitimizes government action targeting community museums in Yukon?
- What actors – in particular, formal institutions, programs, and policies – support and regulate community museums in Yukon?
- What interest groups or networks of significance exist and what issues have they identified as significant?
Are there any other questions that you would like to see reflection on as part of my pre-interview work?
Have you had similar experiences with interviews? Do you have any tips or tricks about conducting a good interview?