Archival Research: Community Mobilized

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.  

Within this post, I build on my considerations of Director task saturation and the obstacles community museums face. I am looking at letters sent to the territorial government advocating for more support to the Dawson City Museum at a time when the Museum faced severe financial difficulties. Importantly, Museum representatives sent these letters (e.g., board members and the Director), but so did community members and organizations.

For example, Bombay Peggy’s Victorian Inn & Pub wrote a general letter of support stating:

As a business involved in tourism we view the Dawson City Museum as a key attraction as well as an essential community organization dedicated to preserving and interpreting our heritage. Not only have we sent visitors to see its exhibits and to research relatives
involved in the Gold Rush at its archives, but we, ourselves, have used the museum's services to research the building we restored in which to house our business. We have also called upon museum staff to go well beyond the call of duty and take visitors through
the exhibits during the winter months when they are officially closed to the public, a task
they have always been happy to do.
2002, January. Letter to whom it may concern. O & M Correspondence. Box 29b. Dawson City Museum Archives.

Providing another example, the Dawson City Chamber of Commerce wrote to the Premier of Yukon, stating:

The Dawson Museum is recognized as one of the primary heritage attractions in the
Yukon. As well, they have the largest collectiun of artifacts in the Territory and are home
to the Klondike History Library. Their Archival Facility has allowed thousands of people
to research their family history, allowing them to access information that perbaps could
have been lost forever. Locals and visitors alike have been able to glimpse into the past
and experience the victories and hardshipsprevious generations of Klondike bound
travelers have endured. In addition to all of this, the Dawson Museum bas just been
named as a National Historic Site. It is very clear to our members that projects and
initiatives underaken by the Dawson City Museum & Hstorncal Sociery benefit Yukon
citizens tremendously.
In an effort to ensure continued operations, The Dawson Museum has worked hard to
increase attendance, enhance Gift Shop sales and annually coordinate fundraising
auctions, among other initiatives. Many localbusinesses support the Museums ventures
through corporate membership while they alsohave struggled to stay open for business
during these tough economic times
2002, March. O & M Correspondence. Box 29b. Dawson City Museum Archives

Why are these letters interesting?

In the early 2000s, the Dawson City Museum (DCM) failed to receive expected grants partway through a project. It also experienced unanticipated difficulties, such as a bug infestation. 

As a result, the Museum was in a dire financial position and sought additional support from the territorial government. Representatives and supporters engaged in a letter writing campaign (see examples above) and media interviews to address the immediate problem – that is, a lack of funding to pay for staff. 

The territorial government and its representatives were far less supportive than they had been when the Museum faced difficulties in 1979 – 1980. To some extent, Yukon helped address the cash shortfall by letting the DCM reallocate some of its project funding. However, the responses to requests for additional funding and advocacy for change were, at times, hostile.

For example, while vocalizing a willingness to assist, the Deputy Minister stated: 

We are sorry to hear that the museum has gotten itself into financial difficulty.

Brenan 2001

Further, responses tended to emphasize capital contributions as impressive when the Museum and its allies were advocating for operational support. 

Despite the territorial government’s unwillingness to respond with more support, community organizations continued to advocate for the Museum. For example, the Premier responded to the Dawson City Chamber of Commerce’s letter above and outlined the support already provided to the DCM. The Chamber of Commerce was not deterred and continued to advocate, showing an understanding of the Museum’s plight – that is, a need for operational funding. They wrote:

You clearly stated in your letter the ways that the Territorial government assists the
Dawson Museum; by providing spaceat low costs, and contributing financial support for
the museum's gift shop, (allowing them to generate more earned revenue). As mentioned
in our original letter, we do appreciatethe current YTG funding for operating funds but
frankly, it's not enough. Looking at the increase in operating costs over the past ten years
for a museum that has grown to become a primary heritage attraction in the Yukon, how
can you expect a Museum to implement more programs and projects, maintain operating
costs of these initiatives as well as uphold adequate administrative staff and technical
support whie utilizing the sameamount of funds year after year?
In an effort to earn more revenue, the Museum works continuously to raise money
through lotteries. When all is said and done, the money raised scarcely pays the bills.
When applying for larger lottery applications, the museum is forced to withdrawal due to
criteria that seems to contradict itself. For example, it is discouraged to allow proceeds to
be spent on salaries, which in fact is the Museum's single largest category of
expenditures. The Museum Board hasestablished hiring more full-time permanent staff
as their highest priority, but criteria divert them from supporting this goal. It appears no
matter where they turn, there is always something that detours them.
2002, August. Letter to the Premier. O & M Correspondence. Box 29b. Dawson City Museum Archives.

In short, the Dawson City business community responded to the Museum’s problems with letters showing an understanding of its plight and commitment to standing with the Museum in face of opposition.

Is there broader relevance?

In 2002, the letters did not lead to additional territorial support and the Director was let go. However, about a year later – that is, for the 2003-2004 fiscal year – the Museum’s operating grant increased from $23,500 to $80,000.

While the increase happened as part of a new Museum Strategy, its likely these letters and the Dawson City Museum’s plight during the consultation process had some effect in contributing to the change. I have not found anything indicating causation, but there is clearly a correlation between an advocacy effort by one of the most well established museums in the territory and then an increase to the museum program only a year later.

As such, I believe the examples demonstrate the importance of community mobilization in advocacy.

Questions

What do you think? Are these the same lessons you draw from the letter? Do you think this is an important event in the development of the Dawson City Museum?

References

Brenan, Dan. 2001, August. “Letter to DCM.” O&M correspondence. Box 29b. DCM.

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