Dawson City’s Community Attic: The Development of the Dawson City Museum from the 1950s to 1972

The Dawson City Museum project asks – How has the Dawson City Museum evolved in relation to government policy and community action? 

We are taking two approaches to answering the question. First, we are considering the data chronologically to discuss the evolution of the Museum over time. Second, we have developed key themes related to policy and community. To solicit feedback, I will post a series of working papers that consider the data in these two ways – that is, chronologically and thematically. These papers will inform the final report for the Dawson City Museum and podcast miniseries.   

Providing the first chronological consideration of the data, this working paper asks – How was the Dawson City Museum established? What are some key moments, influential policies, and community activities that define its early development from 1954 to 1972? 

After summarizing the answers and outlining our research approach, I give a short overview of the Museum’s development from the early 1950s to 1972. I consider significant policies, focusing on federal action – that is, the provision of an operating grant and free or low-cost space. Then, a section on community activity describes collecting practices and work to develop the tourism industry in Dawson City. Finally, the paper concludes with a summary and research implications.  

Summary

How was the Dawson City Museum established?

The Museum opened as part of the Klondike Tourist Bureau (now the Klondike Visitors Association) in 1954 to preserve artifacts in Yukon and provide an activity for tourists. The founders formed the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society in 1957, incorporated in 1959, to cash a cheque from government, and thereby became an independent museum. 

What are some key moments (1), influential policies (2), and community activities (3) that define its early development from 1954 to 1972?

  1. A key moment is the Gold Rush Festival in 1962, which motivated the Museum to reopen after it burnt down in 1960. 
  2. Influential policies include the federal grant for museums, the territorial support for tourism organizations, and the provision of low cost or free space to the Dawson City Museum. 
  3. Individuals from the Museum’s communities helped rebuild the collection after the fire. Further, organizations in the local community focused on tourism, most notably the Klondike Visitors Association, were key to the Museum’s establishment. 

Research Methods

The Dawson City Museum (DCM) Project has involved extensive archival research, document analysis, and interviews with fifteen people. However, no one interviewed worked for or with the DCM before 1972. As such, this analysis relies on an interview conducted with founders in 1973 (available here), two publications (Stuart 1990, Warner 1963), and the DCM’s corporate archives. 

Overview

In the early 1950s, members of the Klondike Tourist Bureau (now the Klondike Visitors Association or KVA) began collecting and preserving artifacts in Dawson City. The collection began due, in part, to concern that artifacts were being taken out of the Yukon and Canada. However, the group’s main objective was to promote the tourism industry. So, they began asking for space from government to exhibit their collection for tourists. In 1954, the Museum opened for the first time in the old fire hall, functioning as a community attic that was open to tourists. However, without financial support, there was limited local interest  and no regular hours (Interview).

Eventually, an individual from British Columbia (possibly the museums advisor) told those running the Museum:

You need assistance, you’ve got to have government help. You need the help to work, but you need money as well

Interview

At the time, the federal government had a grant for museums distributed through the territorial government. The federal government wrote a cheque to the “Dawson City Museum and Historical Society,” which forced a member of the KVA to form the Museum society to deposit the cheque. The DCM was thereby founded as an independent entity in 1957 and officially incorporated in 1959. 

Unfortunately, the Museum burnt down in June 1960 and, as a result, most of the collection was lost. However, at the same time in 1960 members of the Dawson community began planning the 1962 Gold Rush Festival. Opening a museum in time for the festival was a key goal. To achieve this goal, the Museum Society did two things. First, they began asking for artifacts from both the local community and a broader community of people with a connection to the Klondike, rebuilding a collection with a focus on the Klondike Gold Rush. Second, they searched for a new space to house the collection. 

After significant effort, the Museum Society successfully rebuilt a collection and found housing just in time for the festival, reopening in the federally owned Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB). Over the next decade, the DCM continued operating as a volunteer-run community museum, receiving a relatively small grant ($500) and most of its income from admissions. Importantly, they also continued occupying the OTAB for free.

Due to age and a lack of proper upkeep, problems emerged with the new museum space. By 1968, the OTAB failed a fire inspection and was labeled a death trap (for the first but not the last time). Fearing closure, the Society offered to sell the collection to Klondike National Historical Sites in Dawson. However, the board changed, and the failed report was forgotten, leading to renewed interest in maintaining an independent museum (Shaw 1970; Snider 1971 1972). 

The first period, therefore, ends with a museum in a rent-free but poorly maintained space, functioning as an attic for community treasures open for tourists and those interested in the Klondike. 

Policy 

In the Museum’s first 20 years, the federal government played a key role in its development through the provision of space after the 1960 fire and the original operating grant. 

Space

The Dawson City Museum (DCM) open in the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) just in time for the 1962 Gold Rush Festival and has been there ever since. The building itself has played an important role in the DCM’s development and will be the subject of its own paper. When considering the space and DCM’s early evolution, there are two important points to consider.

First, the federal government leased the OTAB to the Museum during the Gold Rush Festival period for $5.00 a month. After the festival, the Museum continued to occupy the space, but stopped paying rent until the 1990s. The free (and later relatively inexpensive) space was and continues to be a significant form of support for the institution. 

Second, while the free or relatively inexpensive space was crucial to reopening the Museum, it also led to significant challenges. In particular, the space failed a fire inspection and was labeled a death trap. As a result, the overwhelmed volunteers almost sold the collection and shut down the institution. Although a new Board decided to keep the Museum open, building maintenance continued to present challenges and, despite extensive renovations, continues to be an issue today. These issues will be discussed throughout the papers which take the chronological approach to answering the research question and in a paper focusing on the building as a key theme. 

To summarize, the federal government rented the Old Territorial Administration Building to the DCM for five dollars a month and then for free. The provision of space was a significant form of support because it allowed the Museum to reopen. However, at the same time, the lack of support to renovate the space threatened the Museum’s existence. 

Operational Support

The federal government provided funding, which led to the Museum’s incorporation and separation from the KVA when they wrote a cheque to the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society. As museum founder Margretta Gaundroue recalled: 

The Klondike Visitor’s Association were instigators of our Museum. They were the sponsors. I just ran [it], so what could we do? I went to the bank and I said, “how can we cash this cheque?” He says, “you can’t, you have to deposit it.” We had no account to deposit it, so I phoned our minister, Allan Haldenby and I said, “I just formed a new society, you’re the president and the secretary-treasurer.” Knowing how I did things, he said “that’s fine with me,” so that was it.

Interview

The federal government continued to provide a $500 grant until 1961-1962, asking the Museum to detail what they planned with the funds every year. While the territorial government did not begin a specific museum grant program until the 1980s, they did continue the support through a grant for tourism organizations, such as museums. 

In other words, the federal operating grant led to the DCM’s incorporation and contributed to the development of territorial support for museums. 

Community

The Dawson City Museum is a product of its local community’s desire to both serve as a tourist destination and protect its local artifacts in Yukon.

Tourism

In 1953, Yukon’s capital moved from Dawson City to Whitehorse. At the same time, large scale mining was declining. Aiming to capitalize on an increased interest in the north, private and public organizations began to organize to develop a tourism industry in Dawson. To that end, what is now called the Klondike Visitors Association or KVA formed in 1952 and began greeting tourists in costumes. Then, the Dawson City Festival Foundation formed to host the 1962 Gold Rush Festival, which also aimed to increase tourism (Stuart 1990). Both organizations had key roles in the Dawson City Museum’s early development.    

First, as established above, the Dawson City Museum, which opened in 1954, was a product of the KVA. Then, after the Museum incorporated, individuals continued to be members of both groups. Lotz reported:

Two organizations in the city cater to tourists – The Klondike Visitors Association, which ran a campground in 1963, has put signs on the old buildings, and runs the Palace Grand shows, and the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society, which focuses its attention on building up and running the museum in the old Administration Building. Some individuals in Dawson are members of both organizations, and the shortage of able individuals in the town due to the small population and the summer rush, means that some of the tourist attractions and activities are run on a part-time basis or by old people and teenagers.

Lotz 1964, 128

In addition to observing people had dual membership in the KVA and DCM, the quote highlights the Museum’s perceived role as a tourism operation despite its separation from the KVA. Moreover, it draws attention to the local community’s commitment to developing tourism in the area through organizations like the Museum despite limited human resources. 

Second, the Dawson City Museum that reopened in the Old Territorial Administration building in 1962 was a product of the Gold Rush Festival. After the Museum burnt down in 1960, the Museum Society was unable to solicit enough support to construct a new building (Warner 1963, 13). Society members worked to find space for almost two years when the pending Festival provided some urgency to their requests. Members of the Festival Foundation had organized traveling exhibitions to be hosted at the Museum. In a plea for space, a Museum Society representative wrote:

It is imperative to assist the Festival that we have accommodations. 

Shaw 1962

Interestingly, as seen with the KVA, the connections between the Festival and Museum are even more evident when considering the people who formed them. For example, the Gold Rush Festival’s general manager became the Society’s president. 

In short, public and private interests were attentive to the tourism industry in Dawson during the 1950s and 1960s, leading to the Klondike Visitors Association and Dawson City Festival Foundation. Both of these groups involved the local community working to provide activities for tourists. The Dawson City Museum was part of both plans.

Collection

After the fire, the Museum rebuilt its collection due to the generosity of its communities, including Dawsonites, visitors and a network of people with an interest in the Klondike Gold Rush. For example, in 1963 a Society member wrote:

The museum was built up piece by piece through the kindness and generosity of visitors to Dawson, who assisted the museum executives in many ways.

Warner 1963, 13

A tiny harmonium was sent in from the creeks. It was broken. Happily, a man just wandered in the door and asked if he could fix it! 

Warner 1963, 14

These objects came to the Museum following a public appeal. For example, an entry in the Vancouver Board of Trade newsletter stated:

Since the people of the Yukon will be entertaining Bureau members next Monday, it’s nice to discover that we have an opportunity to repay their kindness.

All you are asked to do is look around that attic or basement storeroom of yours for relics of the Klondike days. 

Seems that the Dawson’s Museum burned down last summer, and many priceless mementos of the past were lost. With a festival planned for next year, they are appealing to the people of Canada and the U.S.A, for the donations of relics of the Gold Rush era…

Found in: 1.1.4: Correspondence w secretary treasurer March 1958 to October 1960. Box 1. DCM.

In addition to exemplifying the public appeals, the excerpt demonstrates the focus on the Gold Rush era.

In sum, the Dawson City Museum collection was and is built by their communities.  

Conclusion

In 1954 the Dawson City Museum opened as part of the Klondike Visitors Association to preserve artifacts in the Yukon and provide tourists with something to do. It became its own independent organization to access federal funding then moved into a federal building after burning down. The Museum’s communities rebuilt the collection as the Society worked to reopen for the Gold Rush Festival. By 1972, the Museum was firmly established as an independent organization. However, the Society began experiencing the challenges of occupying a historic site they did not own and did not have funding to fix despite the clear fire code violations. 

The early history demonstrates the significance of both federal policy and community action. The Dawson City Museum was established and despite significant challenges, such as a fire that destroyed its collection, remained open due to federal support, community initiatives to promote tourism in Dawson, and a community’s desire for a space to preserve artifacts in the Yukon. 

References

Haldenby, Allan. 1960, December 7. Letter to the Superintendent public works. 1.1.4: Correspondence w secretary treasurer March 1958 to October 1960. Box 1. DCM Archives

Lotz, Jim. 1964. The Dawson Area: A Regional Monograph No. 2. In Yukon Research Project Series, Northern Co-ordination and Research Centre, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Ottawa, Ontario.

MacKenzie, K. 1961, December. Letter to the Dawson Museum & Historical Society. Correspondence Roy minister 1961-2. Box 39. Dawson City Museum Archives.

Shaw, G. 1962. Letter to the Superintendent of Buildings. Correspondence Minister 1961-62, Box 39c. Dawson City Museum Archives.

Shaw, G. 1970, March 11. Letter to National Historic Sites. 1.1.43 correspondence 1970. Box 1. DCM.

Snider, K. C. 1971, January 27. Letter to the NHS Superintendent. 2.2.1: Correspondence. Box 1. Dawson City Museum.

Snider, K.C. 1972, February 21. Letter to the White Valley Historical Society. 2.2.2: Correspondence 1972. Box 1. Dawson City Museum.

Stuart, Richard. 1990. “Recycling Used Boom Towns: Dawson and Tourism. The Northern Review. 1:108-131. 

Warner, Iris. 1963. “A Museum for Dawson City.” North, 10(4): 13-16.


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