Case Study: Fire vs. Heritage

In MacEwan’s Museum Management class, we consider the regulations that museums have to meet. For example, museums are – most often – buildings open to the public. As such, they have to follow the rules for publicly accessibly spaces. These rules, such as accessibility legislation and fire codes, are not usually written to consider the needs of museums and, more specifically, museums located in historic sites.

While accessibility legislation is relatively new, the first national Fire Code of Canada was published in 1963, meaning museums have a long history of adapting to new fire regulations. For example, in 1980 the Dawson City Museum had to delay opening because a fire inspector’s report called for changes to the building. They had to wait for funding from the territory to implement the changes and then approval from the fire inspector to open (Tait 1980; DCM Director’s Annual Report March 4 1981).

Within this post, I consider a difficulty that arises when museums open in historic buildings and work to make the space safer. These organizations try to meet regulation and install safety features that will preserve the collections while also maintaining the building’s historic elements of significance.

The case study is from the Dawson City Museum (DCM) Project. After providing context, the post considers the argument against the installation of sprinklers, the situation that led to sprinklers, and an instance where the sprinkler system damaged the collection.


The Dawson City Museum (DCM) is an interesting case study because the DCM moved to the Old Territorial Administration Building after their first building (an old fire hall) burnt down (If you want to learn more about the Museum’s early history, check out these timelines from the 1950s and 1960s).

Picture of a burning building
Old Dawson City Museum on Fire, June 5, 1960 (Artist: Roy McLeod; Dawson City Museum Archive 1993.3.11)

The Museum re-opened in the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) in time for the 1962 Gold Rush Festival. OTAB is a national historic site of Canada that the territorial government owns. As such, restorations are often discussed in the Legislative Assembly, leading to some interesting minutes.

Argument Against the Sprinklers

In the mid 1980s, the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) underwent extensive renovations that cost the territory 2.9 million dollars (source).

In March 1986, a Member of Legislative Assembly argued for the installation of a sprinkler system in OTAB. Using quotes from the Dawson City Mayor and the territory’s fire Marshall, he argued Dawson City did not have the resources to fight a fire in a large wooden structure.

However, those most concerned about the heritage value of the building, argued against a sprinkler system. The Minister responsible for Government Services (and therefore government buildings like OTAB) stated:

Were we building a new building, we would clearly put in a sprinkler system, but this is a restoration function. The technical people have considered various possibilities, wet sprinkler systems, dry sprinkler systems, sprinklers only in the hallways but not in some areas, sprinklers in the areas slated to be heated all year, but not in other areas, and the like. The consensus is that it is not desirable. Parks Canada and the Yukon Heritage Branch and the Dawson City Museum Society, I am informed, are clearly and emphatically of that view


At that time, the concerns about the historical integrity of the building were considered more important than installing sprinklers. They did not want to obscure the building’s beautiful features, such as the ceiling, and sprinklers were not needed to adhere to the fire code.

Picture of the North Gallery ceiling taken during the 1986 renovations (Source: Dawson City Museum)

Argument for the Sprinklers

In 1994, the territorial government installed a sprinkler system in the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB). A Member of Legislative Assembly inquired about the change, asking:

 I was under the impression that a sprinkler system was considered to be contrary to maintaining the historic integrity of that building – at least that was the rationale that was given when the OTAB building was renovated some years ago. There was even some suggestion from many people, including people in government, that the building have sprinklers. The department at that time seemed to be taking advice from someone or other that to do so would be completely unfriendly to the notion that this building was going to remain as an exact replica of its former self. 


According to the Minister of Tourism, a significant event changed people’s minds. The Yukon Government acquired  S.S. Tutshi in 1971 and engaged in an extensive restoration process. However, as the restoration was nearing completion in 1990, it caught fire.

The loss of the  S.S. Tutshi prompted a reconsideration of a sprinkler system in the OTAB due to the historic value of the building. The change in approach led to one of the my favorite quotes from the Legislative Assembly minutes:

 I am a little surprised that people were not aware some time ago that wood burns and that without a fire protection system, buildings actually burn right to the ground, as do boats. 



In 2012, the Dawson City Museum’s (DCM) sprinkler system was faulty, soaking thousands of artifacts (source). The event demonstrates that even though sprinklers are recommended for museums and are the best way to protect collections (for an example, see this Canadian Conservation Institute note on the subject), there can be issues with them that need to be considered (in addition to the loss of historical character).

Picture of a piano damaged by the sprinkler system (Laura Mann; CBC Article Link)


Aside from fire and accessibility legislation, what government regulations related to space should students in museum management be considering?


Tait, Dave. 1980, January. “Dawson Museum gets $14,000 Worth of Relief.” Whitehorse Daily Star. p3.

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