Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive: A Consideration of Non-profit Museum Management in a Historic, Government-Owned Space

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 thematic consideration of the data, this working paper focuses on the relationship between the Dawson City Museum and the space it occupies – that is, the Old Territorial Administration Building or the OTAB.  The OTAB is a National Historic Site and a government owned building. So, this thematic consideration relates to policy and demonstrates the role of unarticulated or implicit policies in shaping the Museum’s development. 

After summarizing the answers and outlining our research approach, I give a short overview of the Old Territorial Administration building. Then, I outline the benefits born from the Dawson City Museum’s relationship with the building and the challenges it causes. Finally, I conclude that although the OTAB is a significant form of government support, government inaction hinders the Museum’s development and necessitates ongoing advocacy, which places a significant human resource burden on the Museum. 


What is the relationship between the Dawson City Museum and the Old Territorial Administration Building?

Most simply, the Dawson City Museum has lived in the Old Territorial Administration Building since 1962. As a result, the grand and imposing space has become an integral component of the Museum’s identity, featuring prominently in marketing materials and shaping the Museum’s development. 

What effect has the relationship had on the Museum’s development?

The Yukon Government owns the OTAB, which causes benefits and challenges for the Museum. The rent for the grand, neoclassical building is relatively inexpensive and represents a significant form of support. However, Yukon Government’s reluctance to properly maintain the space creates a human resource burden for the Museum as Executive Directors manage mishaps, advocate for change, and work with the government to ensure they follow through on commitments. Moreover, Yukon Government’s reticence can hinder the Museum’s ability to seek other funding and properly care for the collection. It also represents a threat to the building itself. 

What are the policy implications?

Yukon Government’s lease agreement with the Museum is a kind of implicit cultural policy with both intended and unintended effects. The agreement supports the Museum’s development. However, the Government’s apparent reluctance to adequately maintain the space and support the Museum’s use of the space (in)actively works against the Museum’s interests. 

Research Methods

The analysis draws on research conducted for the Dawson City Museum (DCM) Project, including archival research, document analysis, and interviews with fifteen people. The former Executive Director, Alex Somerville, provided comments on a draft of this paper, which contributed to significant edits.  


The Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) is a National Historic Site constructed in 1901 and designated in 2001. Architect Thomas Fuller designed the building to house diverse legislative and administrative activities in the new Yukon Territory. It accommodated various offices (e.g., the Mining recording office, commissioner’s office), rooms (e.g., a draughting room), and the Council chamber. By the 1920s, all federal and territorial administrative services for Yukon were consolidated into the building except for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Public School. However, when the school building burnt to the ground, it also moved into the OTAB for a short time. Despite the OTAB’s versatility, the territorial capital had moved from Dawson City to Whitehorse in 1953 and the building was empty by 1961 (Archibauld 1977).   

Like the Public School, the Dawson City Museum needed space after its building burnt down in 1960. As such, the Museum moved into the OTAB in 1962 and has remained ever since. The building benefits the Museum because it is inexpensive and impressive. However, it also restrictive and challenging, influencing the Museum’s development in both beneficial and detrimental ways. 


Inexpensive (Financial)

As noted in “Dawson City’s Community Attic,” the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) represents a significant form of government support to the Dawson City Museum (DCM). 

The DCM originally rented the OTAB from the federal government for $5 a month during the Gold Rush Festival period in Summer 1962. Despite no longer paying rent, the Museum continued to display artifacts on the first floor of the OTAB through the 1960s and 1970s. After ownership transferred to the territorial government in the late 1970s, the Museum even expanded onto the second floor. However, in 1998, Yukon Property Management began asking for rent, which the Museum negotiated from $10,000 to $4,000 a year (DCM Minutes 14 January 1998).  

Importantly, rent has stayed $4,000 a year. It is below the Yukon government’s costs and has not increased with inflation. Moreover, Yukon Government took over responsibility for janitorial costs in 2006, increasing their commitment (DCM Minutes September 21, 2006). 

Operational and maintenance costs for the OTAB, which also now houses 1100 square feet of government offices, are now over $130,000 a year – that is, more than the Museum’s operating grant from Yukon government. See Figure One for the annual totals from 2016-2017 to 2020-2021.

Figure one: Operation and Maintenance Costs for the Old Territorial Administration Building

Yukon government has also made capital investments into the OTAB (though, as discussed below, these investments can be stop gap measures that do not address core issues). Most notably, in the 1980s, the OTAB underwent over 2.9 million dollars in renovations. These renovations made the building code compliant after a failed fire inspection and addressed issues with the crumbling foundation. They also made the building more usable year-round with insulation and modern washroom facilities. 

From 2016-2017 to 2020-2021 capital investments have included updates to the fire alarm system, asset management planning, and repairs (e.g., stairs, ice damage, sprinklers). These costs range from 18 thousand dollars to over a million in a year, totaling 2,052,466.11 from 2016 to 2021. However, importantly, that figure include a revitalization project started in 2020-2021, which has not been completed. A less expensive example includes $7,000 to level and repair stairs after a patron complained about the tripping hazard and wrote a letter to government (notably, this is an example of Yukon Government not acting on a known issue until there was some advocacy work).   

In short, the low rent that the Museum pays for OTAB and the investment in the space represents a kind of implicit cultural policy whereby the government provides space that supports museum operations. 

However, when accounting for the building as a form of support, it is also important to recognize that the Museum’s work supports Yukon Government. According to Yukon Government’s 2020-2021 Five-Year Capital Plan, capital investments, such as those made to OTAB, ensure Yukoners are able to live healthier, happier lives. Moreover, Yukon Government owns the OTAB and would ultimately be responsible for the building costs regardless of the Museum’s occupation.  As an occupant, the Museum has the legitimacy to advocate for maintenance and capital work to ensure the historic building’s continued operation as a publicly accessible space. The Museum’s role as advocate for the building extends nationally as well. In particular, the Museum applied for historic site designation in the early 2000s, leading to national recognition of the building’s significance.


The Old Territorial Administration Building is both an artifact and home to artifacts. As an artifact, it is visually impressive. An Interview Participant described the building as follows:

When it was finished in 1901, the Old Territory Administration Building was the largest building in the north. It’s 200 feet long. It’s 2 and 1/2 stories high. It’s a beautiful old wooden building. It was built to house the government of the Yukon of the late nineteenth century. We couldn’t have asked for a grander home in resplendent white neoclassical style, gently set back on dusty 5th avenue in the park-like setting. 

Interview 1

This description is significant because context influences how objects look and signify (Jones and MacLeod 2016). The OTAB – a visually impressive and imposing historic building – provides context, influencing perception in two major ways. 

First, museum architecture can contribute the experience of the transcendent because, through architecture, people can feel connected to something larger than themselves (Buggeln 2012). The observation that the OTAB’s architecture connects visitors to something larger than themselves is not new. The application to designate the OTAB as a national historic site argued the building reflects the sense of optimism that characterized the Klondike Gold Rush. It reads:

As an architectural construct, the imposing size of the (Old Territorial) Administration Building also symbolizes the sense of optimism which characterized the Klondike Gold Rush itself… Evidently, the belief in the continued prosperity of Dawson played a part in architect Thomas W. Fuller’s decision to house the mining offices in such a large facility. 

DCM 2000

The application also argues the building symbolizes the new relationship between Canada and the Yukon. It provided an air of stability and permanence to the new governance structures in the territory (Ibid). As a museum, the Dawson City Museum is thus a colonial construct within a visual representation of and connection to colonialism. The historic building connects visitors to the past and systems of continued relevance as a grand physical representation of bygone eras that are also represented inside through objects. 

Interestingly, the OTAB and its foundation reflect the Museum’s old exhibitions. The building was created to provide space for government after an influx of minors. It thereby serves as a visual representation of the Klondike Gold Rush era and the old exhibitions centered this migration event. At the same time, the building’s various uses overtime physically represent the new exhibition’s major theme – that is, the people of the Klondike survive and prosper through adaptation and change.  Through the interpretation of the space, the building can help connect visitors to these broader themes. The connection also raises a question thus far unanswered– as staff work in a physical symbol of the past, has the building itself influenced the development of the exhibition themes? 

In addition to signifying the past, the building also provides a visual representation of the Museum’s connection to a broader heritage interpretation in Dawson City. Notably, in 1978, Parks Canada recognized OTAB as a Grade One Historic Resource, which “is essential to the commemorative integrity of the Dawson Historic Complex in order to portray the gold rush and its aftermath in a coherent manner” (Thistle 2001).

Second, experiences are mediated through the architecture, which expresses a position on the function of the museum (Sweet 2007). The OTAB is a historic building that legitimizes the small nonprofit as a professional museum telling stories about that history. As the Interview Participant quoted above observed: 

            It all looks very much like a museum.


Reflecting the perception that the building looks like a museum, “Saw the building” was the second highest reason people visited the Museum identified in a 1989 visitor survey (the first was a recommendation from the visitor information center). 

Beyond looking like a museum, the space looks grand and impressive, which shapes its use. As a former Executive Director noted, 

The OTAB presents the Museum with a challenge of greatness. It is an intimidating building to fill. 

Somerville, personal communication

Another interview participant observed:

I think it’s quite a grand building, so it’s a lovely space to be in. It elevates the quality of our exhibits from them being in that space, but also, I think it makes people expect great things…

It definitely was a pleasure to work in that space and I think it improves the Museum for it. If we were just in any old building, we’d still be great, but it wouldn’t be as good.


The OTAB thereby influences how exhibits are perceived, elevating them in the eyes of visitors and challenges staff to elevate their work to meet the greatness called for in the space. For example, starting in 1975, the Museum staff began to professionalize the Museum. An Interview Participant recalled:

At one point, [the Curator] just looked around and it’s a big building with lots going on. So, she and I looked at a few books about how a museum should run, and she got some grants that ran a couple of years and hired nineteen people. We set up, essentially, a modern museum like the staffing structure. That was really the beginning of pulling the Museum out of a curio shop into a museum with policies and procedures and an idea of what the correct way to go about things were.


The participant went on to say:

            I told you we were trying hard.


Their hard work involved expanding through the building into unused spaces and developing exhibition themes, which began with the observation “it’s a big building with lots going on.” As a result, the Museum evolved from more of a “curio shop” into a modern museum. The building prompts and present the opportunity for “greatness.”

Discussing the OTAB as influencing the Museum due perception raises important questions: without the grand space, would the Dawson City Museum have become the largest collection in the Yukon? How much of what has been accomplished is attributable to the grandness of the OTAB? 

In short, the OTAB is an artifact of aesthetic and historic significance, visually signifying – a museum lives here. The grand and impressive building provides the appearance of a traditional (and relatively well funded) museum. As a result, perceptions of the exhibitions and those working in the space can be elevated. 


The ongoing issue of renovations 

When the Dawson City Museum moved into the OTAB in 1962, it needed extensive renovations, which did not happen for more than 20 years. As a result, occupying the space presented significant challenges for the museum society. Advocating for renovations became a major preoccupation of the Museum’s first Director, leading to a 2.9-million-dollar investment in the 1980s. However, the need for renovations persisted given the building’s age and adaptive use. The inability to do these renovations independently and the government’s inaction has presented a number of challenges for the DCM over time.

The OTAB provided its first challenge in 1968 when it failed a fire inspection. Importantly, those running the Museum did not perceive the building as any more dangerous than when the government used the space without addressing core issues. The treasurer argued:

Sure, this old building is a fire trap. Has been for as long as I can remember… One thing is certain that it is no more a fire hazard than it was when the government were using it, in fact less.

Shaw 1968

As a result, the inspector’s report was seen as an unreasonable obstacle for an already overburdened group of volunteers running the Museum. After describing the Museum as a team of only three people, the treasurer stated:

… it might be a good time to bunch it. Why keep batting one’s head against a wall?


Due to a lack of support to bring the building up to code, the Museum Society was prepared to sell the collection for one dollar to Klondike National Historic Sites (Shaw 1970). However, the board changed, and the inspection seems to have been forgotten in the early 1970s. The new secretary wrote:

We have faced a problem in that some have had a desire to abandon the work rather than improve it. This has started to change now with some changes in our directors.

Snider 1972

As a result, the Museum continued to live in the OTAB without doing the much-needed renovations that it could not afford. 

In 1979, the Museum once again failed a fire inspection and was labeled a “death trap.” The inspector wrote:

To be completely honest, up until the time of the familiarization tour that you guided for the members of the Fire Department, I considered the Museum as a large “fire trap”. However, since the tour, I believe a more accurate term is a large “death trap”. These are dramatic terms, but I believe they are realistic.

Rehn 1979

As a result, the Museum was forced to remain closed until they addressed the issues and passed another inspection. However, the Museum Society did not have the funds to make the OTAB code compliant. Considering territorial ownership, they asked the Yukon Government to pay for some of the upkeep. The Territory responded with a one-time grant of $14,000, making its first capital investment into the OTAB since the Museum’s occupancy. The investment allowed the Museum to do electric work, plumbing, carpentry and fix broken windows (DCM Director’s Report for August). Importantly, the successful advocacy for funding reflected a positive relationship between the Museum’s director and the Klondike’s MLA who was a Minister within the government at the time (see “Government Relationships”). 

Despite the investment, there continued to be issues with the OTAB. For example, the basement was full of ice, making the building incredibly cold. As one interview participant remembers:

So, the two Elders or the two seniors that I told you about that were so delightful, they used to wear their idea of old-time costume, which was a long dress, frilly. They would wear long johns and whatever else they could get on underneath the dresses because it was just freezing, even in the summer.


Due to the cold, when the Museum began using employment programs to hire year-round staff in 1975, they could not work in the building. It was simply too cold during the winter. There were also critical structural issues. Most alarming, a report found 26% of the foundation posts had failed and 35% had rotten to an unsalvageable level (Ross 1982).

The Museum Society, in partnership with Parks Canada, advocated for the much-needed renovations. Fortunately, the Canada-Yukon Sub agreement on Tourism was signed in 1980 to undertake programs identified as integral to long term tourism development. The investment directed attention to the Museum’s issues and some funding, such as $125,000 for roof reconstruction (DCM President’s Report AGM 1980; YLA 25.3.38). The Museum expected to receive funding for the foundation as well but were considered ineligible (Ross 1982) so they continued to advocate. When a Minister and government officials received a tour of the building, someone leaned on a foundation post, and it fell (Interviews). The Museum then received funding for the foundation (Dawson City Museum and Historical Society 1983), which started 2.9 million dollars in renovations in the mid 1980s. 

Subsequent renovations have related to exhibit renewal. In the early 2000s, the gallery space underwent construction to install a new permanent exhibition, which required new wall openings. These renovations were delayed by Yukon Government. The Director gave the plans to and spoke with the on-site property manager in late 1999. The Manager did not provide negative feedback and agreed it was a relatively simple plan. In 2000, the Director began working with the Government Services’ technical review staff to approve the tender documents. However, after revisions responded to their feedback, they decided a professional architect was needed to produce more detailed documents. So, the Museum hired an architect, but struggled to obtain the correct drawings of the OTAB from government that were needed to start the process (Thistle 2001, May). Eventually, the documents were obtained, but these delays and the lack of clarity about the need for an architect at the beginning of the process meant the new gallery did not open until 2002. 

More recently, the Museum underwent a renewal project and installed new exhibitions. The territorial government agreed to do related renovations, such as changing the south gallery into the library, archives, and offices. They also identified a new fire panel, new sprinkler pipes and heads, as well as retro fitting the attic, crawl space, and windows as priorities (DCM ED Report Aug 21). However, most of the renovations never occurred despite the Museum installing its new exhibitions. As of March 2022, the only work that has been done was on the floors at the Museum’s insistence when the floors were exposed during the exhibit renewal. As a result, a section of the building is currently closed. 

Perhaps more importantly, the sprinkler system still has not been replaced, which is an urgent problem for the Museum’s collection and the building itself. In 2012 the OTAB’s sprinkler system began to fail (See “Fire vs. Heritage”). As stated in an interview with the former Executive Director:

In 2012 part of our fire system came apart and flooded the museum, damaging our collections. It will be ten years next year since that happened before the fire suppression system will be replaced and updated. 


As of March 2022, the system has not yet received an upgrade, putting the Museum’s collection at a significant risk. As the Executive Director observed:

In some ways, the museum’s holdings have been at risk of similar floods because we are at the mercy of the building owner. We can’t get the money to replace that system on our own. We don’t own the building. We don’t own the system.


The quote highlights the Museum’s inability to address the issue without the cooperation of Yukon Government. Unfortunately, that cooperation can be difficult to get.

In short, the Old Territorial Administration Building is a historic site and, as an old building, presents challenges for those animating the space. Despite its occupancy, the Museum is unable to address these challenges alone because of the costs and its position as a tenant. While the owner – that is, the Yukon Government – has provided significant financial investment to address some issues, this investment is only made after significant advocacy from the Museum. Moreover, the government’s involvement can delay projects and, as a result, the Museum’s collection is currently at a significant risk of water damage. The Government’s inaction actively works against the Museum’s interest. 

Restriction (No Lease)

As the renovation issues demonstrates, Yukon Government can be slow to act, and this can cause challenges for the Museum. For example, in March 2015 the Dawson City Museum’s lease expired. At the time Yukon Government was not negotiating new leases because it was conducting a review of its policies (DCM ED Report March 20, 2018). In 2018, the Museum’s Director began preparing an application for the Cultural Spaces Program to support the renewal project, working with a federal program officer. However, they were unable to apply without a 10-year lease agreement (DCM Minutes September 18, 2018).

Getting a 10-year lease agreement was difficult. Yukon Government officials were involved in meetings with the federal program officer and knew the requirements. However, during the process they suggested they could try to provide a five-year lease, which would not have met the needs for federal funding (DCM ED Report May 08). As delays continued, Yukon’s Property Management Director noted “the Executive Council decision on the Museum’s lease has not happened because the matter has been so far left off the Executive Council’s agenda” (DCM ED Report Aug. 21). 

The delays meant that the lease became “the greatest hold up on the progress of the renewal project” (DCM Minutes July 5, 2018). It prevented the museum from applying for funding in 2017-2018 (DCM 2018 Annual Report) and 2018-2019 (DCM 2019 Annual Report). In May 2019, the Museum finally signed a lease with Yukon Government and were able to apply for funding from the federal Cultural Spaces program. The funding application was successful and supported their work on the renewal project.

In short, the Museum’s lease agreement ended in March 2015. Yukon Government did not offer a new agreement until May 2019 (DCM 2019 Annual Report; DCM 2020 Annual Report). The lack of action on the part of the territorial government caused a two-year delay in the Museum’s ability to apply for federal funding. Territorial inaction has, therefore, hindered the Museum’s ability to go outside the territory for financial support. 


The Dawson City Museum benefits from being in the Old Territorial Administration Building because it reduces expenses and provides an imposing historic site, which arguably elevates the exhibitions and work of staff as it influences perception and presents the challenge of greatness. However, Yukon Government can be slow to act, and the building has significant deficiencies. The Museum cannot address those deficiencies alone due to ownership and costs. As a result, the Museum expends significant human resources advocating for upgrades and working to ensure renovations come to fruition. The OTAB is, therefore, both a benefit and a challenge for the Museum. 

From a policy perspective, the Yukon Government’s intention is unclear. The lease agreement benefits the Museum because OTAB is inexpensive and impressive. However, the government also hinders the Museum’s development with an apparent lack of interest, challenging and restricting the Museum in ways that undermine their own support . 


What do you think? When asking – How has a museum evolved in relation to government policy and community action? – what role do you think a building plays?


Archibald, Margaret E. 1977. Manuscript Report Number 217. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Accessed:

Buggeln, Gretchen T. 2012. “Museum Space and the Experience of the Sacred.” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief. 8(2): 30-50. 

Dawson City Museum and Historical Society. 1983. “Dawson Museum News.” Newsletter, 13: 39-41.

Dawson City Museum. 2000. “Application, Part 1 OTAB.” In Heritage Canada – YCW, 2000. Box 27b, DCM Archives.  

Rehn, Rick. 1979, June. Letter to the Museum director. 4a.4.15: Fire inspection 1979, Box 4. Dawson City Museum Archives, Dawson City. 

Ross, Brian. 1982, September. Letter to the Deputy Minister of Tourism, Heritage and Cultural Affairs. 7.7.10; grants 1981 1982. Box 5. Dawson City Museum Archives, Dawson City.

Shaw, Geo. O. 1968, October 7 Letter to the Commissioner 1.1.38 Correspondence 1968, Box 1, Dawson City Museum Archives, Dawson City. 

Shaw, G. 1970, March 11. Letter to National Historic Sites. 1.1.43 correspondence 1970. Box 1. Dawson City Museum Archives, Dawson City.

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

Sweet, Jonathan. 2007. “Museum Architecture and Visitor Experience,” in Museum Marketing: Competing in the Global Marketplace, edited by Ruth Rentschler and Anne-Marie Hede, 226 – 237. Taylor & Francis Group. 

Thistle, Paul. 2001, May. Letter to Mr. Philip B. Lind. Correspondence Lind. Box28b. Dawson City Museum.

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