Archival Research: Too Much for One Person

After a very intensive week in the Dawson City Museum (DCM) archives, I am sorting, reading, and analyzing what I found. The documents scanned are interesting and contributing to the narrative(s) about the DCM’s development. In order to help with the analysis, the “Archival Research” series considers the stories archival materials tell, looking at the items I found most exciting.  

This post builds on Overwhelming Obstacles, which considers a Board member’s feeling of overwhelm. In that instance, the Dawson City Museum (DCM) did not a full-time, year round Director yet. This post considers three instances where Directors similarly felt overburdened and expressed this feeling in correspondence.


Instead of contextualizing the examples, I am going to provide the three examples one after the other to show how the problem has existed across time and with different Directors. Here they are:

Document in 7.7.40, Box 5, Dawson City Museum Archive

DCM is recognized as one of the most important heritage attractions in the community yet we have few volunteers, locals rarely attend our special events, and financial support is nil. My fear is that eventually the Museum will not be able to sustain its operations and will close. It will only be then that people will realize our struggle and step up to help.

A Director’s Exit report
Letter from O & M correspondence, Box 29b, Dawson City Museum Archives.

Why are these excerpts interesting?

The excerpts are most interesting because they are part of a trend, showing a pattern of the Museum Director being overwhelmed with the amount of work needed. However, they each highlight specific problems, which are not mutually exclusive and do repeat:

The first letter reflects on the Board’s lack of participation and tendency to expect the Director to do a job the Board should have be doing or hired someone qualified to do. In particular, the Director was working as their secretary. The Director was also working as Financial Clerk, doing the bookkeeping, despite being unqualified for that position. She wrote:

… To spend one year as Financial Clerk and secretary is not my idea of the job position.

See Above

When the Director expressed her concerns, they were not addressed:

I spoke out at our May meeting…I have had to struggle all summer to do a job that I said that I was not really qualified for.

See above

In the second example, the Director talks about the lack of ongoing local support for the institution – that is, outside of a crisis – despite its recognition as a vital attraction:

….we have few volunteers, locals rarely attend our special events, and financial support is nil. My fear is that eventually the Museum will not be able to sustain its operations and will close.

See above

Finally, the last excerpt touches on a lack of financial resources, which led to a lack of support for employment:

My success rate in obtaining grants has been declining recently because of the poor economy and the overwhelming number of deserving applications being submitted to funders of every description. The Museum was extremely close to closing its doors twice during the peak tourist season last summer.

See above

In short, the Museum’s Directors are often left feeling “frustrated, exhausted, enervated, and despondent” (See third letter above) due to a perceived lack of support from the Board, the community and/or potential funders. Running a museum is hard and involves work in administration, collections, exhibitions, facilities management, research, and public programming. This work becomes even harder without support.

Is there broader relevance?

The broader relevance becomes apparent when looking at period(s) where Directors were not reporting feelings of being overwhelmed. In particular, the Museum was relatively well staffed due to the availability of project, employment, and Yukon anniversary funding from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s. During that period, the Museum also had an active and involved board, including people with relevant knowledge working with Parks Canada. As a result, the Museum thrived.

The “Golden Age” of the Museum started with a 2.9 million dollar renovation in the mid 1980s and continued with new exhibitions, active involvement in the community, and an expanded resource center. It ended as funding became scarcer and the board became less active. Without funding for staff and active committees, the workload was left to the director and the few contract employees that depended on grant availability.

The Dawson City Museum has the largest collection of artifacts in Yukon and is a key attraction in a community that relies on tourism. In many ways, the institution punches above its weight. However, as the responsibility for that work falls on fewer shoulders, those people feel overwhelmed. I recommend checking out Paul Thistle’s, a former Director of the Dawson City Museum, blog on task saturation for more information about the scope of work required of museum workers and possible solutions. It is available here.


What do you think? Are these the same lessons you draw from the excerpts? Do you think it is important to consider Director overload when looking at the Museum’s development?

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