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The Importance of People: The Dawson City Museum in the 1970s

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 (Dawson City’s Community Attic) to discuss the evolution of the Museum over time. Second, we have developed key themes (Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive) 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 second chronological consideration of the data, this working paper asks – What are some key moments, influential policies, and community activities that defined the Dawson City Museum’s development from the 1970s to the early 1980s?

After summarizing the answers and outlining our research approach, I give a short overview of the Museum’s development from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. I consider significant policies, focusing on employment policy and the relationship with Parks Canada. Then, a section on community activity describes the community of employees that moved to Dawson City in the 1970s and communities continued influence on the collections. Finally, the paper concludes with a summary and research implications.  

Summary

What are some key moments, influential policies, and community activities that defined the Dawson City Museum’s development from the 1970s to the early 1980s?

  1. Key moments: In 1972, the Museum’s first year-round director/curator began working as a summer employee. She then used employment programs to hire year-round staff, including herself, in 1975. The presence of staff led to a more active and professional institution that accessed a range of government programs and participated in the community. 
  2. Influential policies: Federal employment grants, such as the Local initiatives Program, were the most influential policies of the period. However, the Museum also began accessing project grants, such as those associated with the national museum policy, and developed a supportive relationship with Parks Canada. 
  3. Community activities: In the 1970s, the local community grew to include a group of young people interested in heritage who were not employed by Parks Canada. They became the backbone of the Museum’s work for the next twenty years. 

Research Methods

The working paper relies on archival research in the Dawson City Museum’s corporate archive and a document analysis, focusing on digitized minutes of Board meetings and curator/director reports. The fifteen interviews conducted for the Dawson City Museum Project included three with people who worked at the Museum in the late 1970s – that is, the curator/director and two contract workers – as well as a Parks Canada employee who worked closely with the Museum. 

Overview

The Dawson City Museum (DCM) would not be where it is today without the foundation laid in the 1970s and early 1980s when the Museum began employing year-round staff. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Museum was not very active. As one Interview Participant recalled:

There was not much of anything, other than the Museum opened in late May and closed in September.

Interview 5

However, by the early 1980s, Museum staff were actively engaged in collections management, exhibition development, and advocacy for territorial support. The change is attributable to the work of the first Museum director/curator who started as a summer employee in 1972 then began using government programs to support year-round staff, including herself. 

In 1975, the DCM used the federal Local Initiatives Program to employ people during the winter for the first time. Staff enabled the Museum to professionalize. They built a washroom, did research, and catalogued the collection. Cataloguing was particularly important because the Museum’s collection was not well documented at that time (Snowalter 1975). An Interview Participant described collection management as follows:

We kind of knew what was in the collection… People back in ‘62 had painted, I think, DM and a number of accession on an item, and they had recycled a really big old account book from one of the old businesses in town. It was leather bound and had plenty of pages. So, they just wrote down who donated, what the item was, and the date then put a number to it. That’s what we used to see what we had, but we were still getting artifacts and there was no official way of including them in the collection. Inventorying what we had was, to me, number one on the list.

Interview 5

Therefore, museum staff began establishing collection management procedures and cataloguing materials according to the best practices at the time. 

In addition to addressing issues with collection management, staff worked on the exhibitions. They organized displays into dioramas of rooms and shops, including Klondike Kate’s bedroom, a blacksmith shop, and a cabin (Rubinsky 1976). As they developed new exhibitions, they expanded into new spaces. An Interview Participant recalled:

We opened the north half of the main floor. I think it was the same year we took out the boxed-in walls barricading the second floor… [and] hiding that wonderful staircase up to the second floor. New exhibits went in both the north side and the south side, and they were more organized. There were people who had art skills, or research skills, or display skills, so we did a heck of a lot of renovation.

Interview 5

We were able to create these wonderful exhibits. I take no credit for [them], it was a group decision on what we needed, [and] what research needed to be done to create certain things. 

One of the exhibits I do remember was recreating a ton of goods, which is what was needed to climb the Chilkoot. That seemed to really impress visitors, they had no concept of what it meant to take a ton of goods over the Chilkoot. That particular exhibit was well worth it.

Interview 5

As the quotes demonstrate, the new exhibitions were well researched and aimed to be more professional. 

Despite the year-round employees and increase in activity, the Old Territorial Administration Building or OTAB, which houses the Museum, was not yet ready for year-round occupation. It was too cold. Staff worked in the City’s garage (DCM Curator’s Report 1975) and, later, a Parks Canada office (DCM Curator Report December 7, 1976). As an Interview Participant recalled:

It was pretty hard to do anything in the building in the wintertime. So, if you were doing a project, it was usually a research project or something that didn’t rely on the on the resources that were in the Museum.

Interview 7

In addition to hampering year-round work, the building’s condition limited the funding the Museum could access from federal programs targeting community museums (Rubinsky 1976). 

Money was thus a constant concern for the DCM and its new employees. As an Interview Participant observed:

It seemed that my life revolved around finding funds in any way, shape, and form.

Interview 5

As a result, the staff started an auction, which is still held annually, and developed other ways to earn money. For example, they used the Local Initiatives Program in 1976 to start Big Cabin Crafts, hiring locals to make Jubilee Dolls for the Museum’s gift shop (DCM AGM Minutes October 27, 1976).

The Museum also engaged in contracts with federal agencies. As an Interview Participants described:

The Museum did projects for other organizations – mostly government. [They did] inventories for historic sites, trips out into the backcountry and photographic and description projects – mostly to keep money flowing in.

Interview 7

Examples include a contract to coordinate the Dawson Film Find for the National Film Archives (DCM Minutes July 26, 1978) and a contract from Parks Canada for a Creek Survey Project (DCM Director’s Report July 23 1979). 

Maintaining funding levels to support staff and the increase in Museum activities was a challenge. The Director described 1980 as a year of turmoil because she attempted “to cover too many bases at once” and there was a lack of community involvement within the Museum Society (DCM Director’s Annual Report March 4th, 1981).  As she recalled:

I just went ahead 24-7 most days… [there was] constant worry of where’s the money coming from, not just to hire me, but to hire people to continue with what had been managed by these Winter Grants, and then Summer Grants. There was always in the background – what’s going to happen to the building? We fundraised, we put on steak barbecues, we started the annual Christmas Fair, Christmas Bazaar, out of which came the Museum auction

Interview 5

As the quote demonstrates, the director/curator was fundraising, applying for a range of grants to support employment, and managing contracts with federal agencies while also professionalizing the Museum and supervising staff.  At the same time, the board expected her to do bookkeeping and treasurer work for which she was not trained (See, for example, documents available in Klondike heritage services programs final report January 1982, Box 5, Dawson City Museum Archives).  As such, in 1981 she warned that she may resign, pointing to a lack of support for the job from the Board (DCM Director’s Annual Report March 4th 1981). Finally, in 1982, she resigned after being asked whether she took money from a Museum event (DCM AGM President’s Report November 26, 1982; interview).

In short, the second period examined ends with the first, but not the last, example of a director leaving the Museum due, in part, to work overload. She had done an impressive amount of work to ensure the DCM had staff who began professionalizing the institution. While the board had many suggestions, they were not yet providing the support needed. Moreover, as seen in the first period, the building continued to be a significant, ongoing concern (DCM Minutes January 25 1978). It failed a fire inspection and was unable to re-open without addressing the issues, which prompted territorial investment that will be discuss as part of the next chronological consideration. 

Policy 

There are three policies that were most important to consider during this period. First, employment programs intersected with other grants and Museum activities, enabling the DCM to professionalize. Second, new federal project grants encouraged museums to professionalize and directed activity at the DCM. Third, relationships with Parks Canada provided expertise guiding Museum staff in their efforts  

Employment Policies

Staring in 1975, the DCM began using federal employment programs to support staff. The grants were particularly important because there were no operational funding programs targeting Yukon community museums at the time. The DCM’s ongoing funding was limited to earned revenues and a $500 tourism grant. Employment programs supplemented the limited funding with support for what became the Museum’s most valuable resource – staff.

In the 1970s, baby boomers were entering the workforce, causing an increase in youth unemployment rates (Roy and Wang 2000). In some areas, de-industrialization also contributed to these high rates. The federal government responded by investing in employment with the Local Initiatives Program in 1971. While the program experienced cuts and was terminated in 1977 (Blake 1976), the federal government announced a new Employment Strategy in 1976 (Keck 1995), which led to a variety of programs like Canada Works. 

Reflecting on the importance of these employment programs, an Interview Participant recalled:

In the 1970s the federal government had Winter Works programs, LIP, Local initiative Programs, which evolved into the Winter Works Grant or the Canada Works Grant, and it was primarily to keep people working in the winter. 

I offered to put together one of the applications in ‘75. I had moved to Dawson by that point so that allowed me to stay in Dawson, and have employment through the winter, and then I could hire other people. We basically batted heads together with the Society on trying to improve the appearance of the Museum and give it a more solid standing within the community.

Interview 5

As the quote suggests, the employment programs enabled the Museum to professionalize its offerings. Most significantly, the Museum received a $133,000 “work grant” from the Department of Employment and Immigration’s Canada Community Services Program (DCM Director’s Annual Report March 4th, 1981). The grant supported the three-year Klondike Heritage Services project beginning in 1981. It enabled work on the resource center, education programs, audio-visual materials, registration and collection, photography, displays, and more (DCM Klondike Heritage Services Report). 

Importantly, federal civil servants actively supported the Museum in making applications for the work grants. As an Interview Participant recalled:

Canada Manpower in Whitehorse was instrumental in those grants being divvied out… There was one individual who was responsible for Dawson. He had come up, and invariably after the first grant we got, he would jokingly say, “now what do you want?” He’d tell me what grants were available, and he’d give me tips on what not to ask for, or what could be covered. 

Each year, it seemed that when we applied for a grant, the parameters for that grant had expanded. He was very quick to tell us, “last year you wanted to do this, that and the other, and you couldn’t. Well, this year, you can apply for that if it fits in with what you want to do.” If we submitted an application, he would phone us up and say, “yeah, I don’t think it’s going to happen if you include this or that.” Usually, by the time we had done the final draft on our application, we had covered all the bases that were asked of us. He was involved in that. I can’t take that credit.

Interview 5

In short, employment grants were available and applications for them were supported, leading to year-round staff at the DCM.  As described in the overview, having staff enabled the Museum to become more professional. For example, the DCM used Winter Work and Canada Works grants to research exhibitions (DCM Minutes March 28, 1978; Jones 1977). As one Interview Participant observed:

[The Director] 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.

Interview 7

Notably, the new staff were also able to support fundraising events and apply for project grants, which further expanded the Museum’s capacity. 

Project Funding

In the early 1970s, the federal government development a national museums policy, involving support for community museums. The DCM was ineligible for support as an associate museum and other project grants because of the poor condition of the Old Territorial Administration Building, which housed the Museum (Lawrence 1978). However, they began accessing available project grants in the late 1970s, which provided direction for professionalization with support for employment tied to projects the programs encouraged. 

More specifically, in 1978, the Museum used a National Inventory Assistance Cataloguing Grant to hire staff (DCM Minutes September 26, 1978; DCM Director’s Report May 30 1978), directing work toward the collection. As an Interview Participant recalled:

The first funding that was available was for cataloging because, as I said, even at the Dawson Museum, we didn’t know where a lot of this stuff came from. Just to have photographs and descriptions just the basics without even trying to figure out where the things came from hadn’t been done to that point. So that was, again, government that said, “you have to look at your collections and figure out what you’ve got.”

Interview 7

The winter work was the core of people that were doing inventory or cataloging. Lots of cataloging, of course, because that’s where the money was from the government.

Interview 7

In short, the Museum was eligible for and able to get funding through the National Inventory Assistance program, which directed work toward collection management. However, due to an inadequate facility, the Museum was limited in the grants it could apply for. Importantly, the DCM was not alone. The Lord report observed an under use of federal funding in Yukon “largely due to inadequate staff and facilities to qualify for them” (12).  

Relationship with Parks Canada

In addition to funding through articulated policy programs, the Museum began receiving support from Parks Canada. Notably, Museum and Parks Canada employees (that is, people) developed a relationship with each other as they worked on the Dawson City Film Find in 1977. Parks Canada employees then began to support the Museum more actively in a variety of ways. An Interview Participant recalled:

During my time there, the person in charge of Parks Canada in Dawson was amazing. Anything they could do for the Museum they would do it.

Interview 5

Addressing the perennial concern – money, Parks Canada assistance directed more finances toward the Museum. As an Interview Participant stated:

Whenever we were looking at how to put more money into the museum, which would allow us to work on exhibits, research, cataloging, anything like that, Parks Canada came in

Interview 5

The financial support mentioned in the quote was indirect and not grant related. For example, Parks Canada engaged the Museum in contract work. One of the Interview Participants began working at the Museum through a contract with Parks Canada. She recalled:

I was relatively new to the community, I was looking for work, and I heard of a project that I was interested in. It was a joint project between the local Parks Canada office and the Dawson City Museum. [It] was documenting and recording historic sites and objects in the Klondike gold fields. I applied for it, got hired and worked for the summer months

Interview 9

The contracts provided the Museum with the funding to staff the project and a small profit. Further, Parks Canada collaborated to develop materials for the Museum’s gift shop, such as a post card series and a poster. 

Supporting collections management, Parks Canada began allowing the Museum to store materials at the Bear Creek Complex (this continues today). Parks Canada employees also helped provide training for those doing collections work. As stated in a newsletter: 

[Employee] has also been hired to assist with cataloguing. She is currently receiving three months training by [the] Curator of Collections for Klondike National Historic Sites (KNHS). In a cooperative venture, KNHS will provide [the employee] with on-the-job training in exchange for her “free” labor to that organization for this three-month period

Jones-Gates 1981, 8

Eventually, Parks Canada employees would even play key roles on the Museum Board and communities, such as the collections committee established in 1982. Participation enabled them to help train and guide museum staff. Several Interview Participants noted the importance of Parks Canada experts in providing advice and expertise whenever issues emerged:

Parks Canada, probably, was the one group in Dawson who very happily sent any specialist who came to town, they’d send them over, “go talk to [the Director] at the Museum” about whatever it was, so lots of advice, lots of sound suggestions from their staff

Interview 5

We relied a lot on what we considered the elite conservation or maintenance of collections. We looked to Parks Canada for expertise, and they had a big crew at one time. They had more than 60 people working in town. They had a conservator… They were very generous in supporting the Museum always.

Interview 7

In short, through relationships with Parks Canada staff, the Museum’s staff (hired with support from employment grants, project funding, and contracts with federal agencies) were better able to professionalize – that,  engage in collections management and develop well researched exhibitions. The relationships formed in the late 1970s were thus integral to the Museum’s development moving forward. In particular, Parks Canada staff began to sit on the Museum’s board and were able to direct the Museum’s efforts through the 1980s, which (as we will discuss in the next working paper) was a decade of change through territorial investment. 

Community

While the employment programs, project grants, and Parks Canada’s assistance provided the support needed to professionalize, the professionalization would not have been possible without the people the museum employed and the impressive collection around which those people organized. 

People

During the 1970s, there was an influx of young people with an interest in heritage. Some of those people were working for Parks Canada, which was developing the Klondike National Historic Sites. Others had moved in search of adventure. The youth became integral to the Museum as volunteers and staff. As Interview Participants recalled:

Young people were discovering Dawson. By young people, I’m thinking that in the summer months, Dawson had many businesses that only opened for the summer, so they all needed staff, and people could pitch their tents across the river and come into town to work. They would have free time and some of them, well, many of them, were University students. They’d come to the Museum, and some of them would volunteer to, I don’t know, wash the floors, or do this, that and the other. As a result, wherever they were working, they would let their employee know that it was a neat place to go to the Museum.

Interview 5

A lot of people had moved in the seventies and were looking around for something fun and exciting to do and be involved in. The Museum is a huge structure, and the collection was just amazingly interesting. So, it was a natural draw for those people. They were keen to be involved.

Interview 7

The second quote highlights that youth engagement at the Museum reflected a desire to engage with such an interesting collection in an interesting place. As that Interview Participant recalled:

At the time when I started [at the Museum] I think I was making five dollars an hour. And so, it wasn’t a well-paid job. People didn’t come to it because of that. They came because it was an interesting place to work, and it drew other interesting people.

Interview 7

Despite being central to the Museum’s work, staff was not paid well or employed permanently because of limited funding. As a result, employment at the Museum was only one job. An Interview Participant recalled:

The younger kids that came in would have worked at the casino and then they would be in a restaurant or handling baggage. You could have three jobs or two jobs during the week – one in the day and one at night and a third one on the weekend – but that wasn’t my position. My position was I would get a project and follow through with that, and then I would either be working on another project or working in construction

Interview 7

Engagement with the youth that moved to Dawson is important because they became fundamental to the Museum’s work moving forward. Some of the employees who started at in the 1970s were contracted over a period of about 20 years. As Participants recalled:

At that point [that is, 1976], I think I was running the staff and the front desk stuff. But over the years I’ve had very many positions with the Museum and sometimes there were a few of us that were quite loyal and, depending on the job, one of them would be the lead and I would work for them or at another time I would be and somebody else [would] work for me on the project. It was something that we didn’t worry about too much … but just focused on getting the job done and making the Museum a great institution… We were a great bunch of loyal people for a number of years.

Interview 7

I wasn’t full time at the Museum, I had other part time work or other contract work that was augmented by work at the Museum. There was always a shifting face of staff, but generally there were a core six to eight people.

Interview 9

In short, the availability of people is necessary for museums to use project and employment grants. However, it can be challenging for museums to maximize these programs to professionalize without staff with the knowledge and experience to engage in museum work. Starting in the 1970s, the DCM began hiring people with an interest and enthusiasm for the institution. They were able to develop the skills they needed. Given the seasonal nature of employment in the region the Museum continued to benefit from their experience over a long period of time. 

Collection

Within the first chronological consideration of the data, I argued the community influenced the museum through donations to the collection. The collection continued to be a key vehicle of influence in the 1970s. As an Interview Participant recalled:

The first Museum burned and people in the community were great about saying “well, this should be in the Museum.” Now that you’re in a bigger building and there’s room for things. The connection to the community was very strong. People would come in and say, “can I see that mammoth tooth that I donated twenty years ago?” They were quite proud of the fact that they had contributed to the collection the Museum held.

Interview 7

[The] collection related more to what the community thought was important. So we got collections that related to mining. We got more personal things and a lot of that was the items that First Nations made to sell tourists… The second museum [that is – after the 1960 fire] was like a new start for the community to say “Okay, this is important. This is what we consider important”

Interview 7

Importantly, the community shaping the collection was not limited to a local community. The museum helped researchers and would occasionally receive donations through that community of people:

Most of them were quite happy, and quite often it resulted in, sometimes a donation of money, but generally if they had photographs, or diaries, or letters, or anything from that period, they would either donate them or make quality copies for us to have, with the idea that when they passed away, they’d donate the originals.

Interview 5

As a foundation for activity, the collection then influenced other areas of museum work. For instance, when the contents of a cabin were donated to the Museum, staff created a diorama of a cabin. An Interview Participant recalled:

Oh, there was Harry Leaman’s cabin. When he passed away, the contents of his cabin were donated to the Museum. In one corner, there was a re-creation of the interior of his cabin, his table, his chair, etc.

Interview 5

In short, communities notably shape the Museum’s activities through donations to the collection. 

Conclusion

Some may argue that collections are museums most valuable resources. I do not think that is true. I think its people. Without people, collections are just storages of decaying objects. People are central to all aspects of museum work. 

The 1970s saw a confluence of grants and migration that enabled the Museum staff – people – to professionalize. While the federal museum program provided some direction toward collections work, implicit museum policies were in many ways more important. In particular, employment funding allowed the Museum to hire staff who worked to implement best practices and relationships with Parks Canada provided direction to those efforts. Without staff, the Museum would have been unable to both access project funding and then do those projects. 

References

Blake, Donald. 1976. “LIP and Partisanship: An Analysis of the Local Initiatives Program.” Canadian Public Policy. Vol. 2 (2): 17-32.

Jones, Kathy. 1977, December. “Forty Mile Exhibit Report… Dawson Museum, 1977.” 3b.3.103, Box 3. DCM. 

Jones-Gates, Kathy. 1981. “Museums update: Dawson City Museum.” YHMANewsletter. 7: 7-8.

Keck, Jennifer Marguerite. 1995. Making Work: Federal Job Creation Policy in the 1970s. Thesis. University of Toronto. 

Lawrence, Richard. 1978, August. “Dawson Considers Museum.” Northern Times. 

Roy, Arun and Wong, Ging. 2000. “Direct Job Creation Programs: Evaluation Lessons on Cost-Effectiveness.” Canadian Public Policy. 26(2): 157 – 169.

Rubinsky. 1976, June 9. “Renovated this Winter: Museum Reopens June 21 Officially. Whitehorse Daily Star. p. 22. 

Snowalter, Mirian. 1975, October 31. “Dawson Museum Society Finds Escape from Hole.” Whitehorse Daily Star. p. 21. 

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