Archival Research: Arguments Against Centralization

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 am looking at the Dawson City Museum’s submission to territorial museum policy consultations in 1986. In particular, I am considering their arguments against centralization – that is, the first two points in their submission. Here is an excerpt:

Dawson City Museum Board of Trustees. 1986, April 16. Letter to Lord Cultural Resources Planning and Management. Yukon museums planning study. Box 10. Dawson City Museum Archives.

Why is the submission interesting?

In order to understand why the submission is interesting, it is important to understand the history of territorial support to community museums up to the 1980s and how this support differed from other subnational governments.

When Yukon began museum policy consultations in 1986, it did not have any kind of territorial museum. However, it had supported community museums – that is, the Dawson City Museum and the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse – since the 1960s. The support was part of its tourism policy, which I discuss in the post: What rationale underlines and legitimizes government action targeting community museums in Yukon?

When the Yukon Historical and Museums Association formed in 1977, it began to advocate for a territorial museums advisor and policy. In particular, they commissioned the Kyte report in 1980, which called for the development of a museum policy.

As a result, the territorial government began to reorganize in 1981, forming a Heritage Branch for the first time in a short lived Department of Heritage and Cultural Resources. The Department and Branch were formed with the explicit intent to help museums access more federal funding. A Minister stated:

The department will hope to have a liaison function, and a facilitating function. For instance, through the Department, we hope that we will have more access to federal money.

YLA 24.4.20

The Northwest Territories had already opened a territorial museum with federal funds, leading to an opposition member remarking:

When I was last in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories, I went through a museum building that is an excellent building. It is obviously a multi-multi-million dollar complex, built with federal funds. I wonder if the Minister is negotiating with the federal a similar building in Yukon?

YLA 24.4.20

The Minister responded by describing a quandary in the Yukon – that is, should there be a centralized or dispersed system of museums. She responded:

I do not know. There is a quandary in the Yukon whether the museums should be as they are now, in different places, or whether there should be one, big Territorial Museum.

YLA 24.4.20

Importantly, the Minister in question represented the Klondike – that is, the Dawson City Museum’s jurisdiction. And, as stated above, the Dawson City Museum was very much against centralization, which they feared would re-direct support away from museums outside of Whitehorse.

The new Branch continued to support the dispersed museum system, developing museum programs to help existing institutions better access federal support in the mid 1980s. Community museums began receiving operational funding as community museums rather than one kind of tourist attraction.

The eventual Yukon Museums Policy (1989) affirmed this commitment to a network of museums, stating:

The Yukon Government is committed to the integrity of strong, independent community museums operated by local, non-profit volunteer boards. 

Museums Policy

In other words, in theory the Dawson City Museum got what it advocated for – a museum policy committed to a decentralized museum structure and no territorial museum.

Is there broader relevance?

In practice, Yukon has implemented a decentralized museum policy with staff mandated to support museums and funding for both operations and special projects. However, staff remained centralized in Whitehorse, despite the Dawson City Museum’s advocacy against this centralization. For example, a president’s report from 1993 stated:

Our efforts to decentralize parts of the Heritage Branch to Dawson City are continuing. In particular, we feel that the Territorial Registration Advisor’s position should be based in Dawson. With over half of the Yukon’s collection located here, and so much work to be done in registration and cataloguing of the collection, we believe that the Heritage Branch should be locating more resource people in Dawson.

DCM Newsletter, vol. 11 no. 2

The DCM’s efforts to decentralize staff were not successful.

Importantly, the Dawson City Museum’s concern that a centralized system may divert resources from decentralized community museums remains relevant. In the 1990s, Yukon began to develop museum-like territorial institutions. The Yukon Arts Center, which hosts exhibits, opened in 1992. The Beringia Interpretive Centre, which exhibits Yukon’s natural heritage, opened in 1997. During interviews, I heard concerns that these centers divert Heritage Branch resources and focus Yukon support on their own salaried positions.

More recently, re-elected Liberals promised a new Arts and Heritage Centre as part of their campaign (source). Further, there is no longer a true Museum Advisor position as the Manager of Museums and Manager of Heritage positions have become merged, meaning the responsible person has a broad range of responsibilities.

I do not have a conclusion here, but rather a concern. What does the creation of centralized heritage centers mean for the support of a decentralized community museum system?


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

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