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Territorial Interest and Investment: The Dawson City Museum in the 1980s

By: Robin Nelson and Christine Leroux

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, we will post a series of working papers that consider the data in these two ways – that is, chronologically (see: Dawson City’s Community Attic, The Importance of People) and thematically (see: Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive). These papers will inform the final report for the Dawson City Museum and podcast miniseries.  

Providing the third 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 in the 1980s?

After summarizing the answers and outlining our research approach, we give a short overview of the Museum’s development in the 1980s. We consider significant policies, focusing on territorial investment in the Old Territorial Administration Building and for community museums more broadly with a brief discussion on the role of federal agencies.  Then, a section on community activity describes the significance of board and volunteer involvement before considering the Museum staff as part of the community. 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 in the 1980s?

  1. Key moments: The Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) renovations in 1986-1987 were a turning point for the Dawson City Museum, setting the Museum up for success with a year-round building. 
  2. Influential policies:
    • Policies discussed elsewhere continue to be significant, including the relationship with federal agencies, support for employment, and territorial support through the provision of space – the OTAB.
    • The 1980’s are notable for territorial investment with the development of a museum support program, including financial support and advisory services for community museums across the territory. Looking at the Dawson City Museum (DCM) more specifically, the territorial government also invested almost 3 million in the OTAB, which houses the Museum. 
  3. Community activities: The community became more involved with the Museum with a more active board and committee structure. At the same time, we see the Museum active in the community through people with multiple memberships – that is, roles as staff and community members. 

Research Method

The working paper relies on the research conducted as part of the Dawson City Museum Project, including archival research and a document analysis of digitized records. Interviews with fifteen people included five interviews with people who were involved with the museum as staff or volunteers in the 1980s and the territorial conservator who began in 1988. 

Overview

During the 1980s, the Dawson City Museum (DCM) continued accessing employment programs and developing stronger relationships with federal actors, such as Parks Canada. However, the decade was, in many ways, a period of change for the DCM. Yukon Government invested in extensive renovations to the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) and developed territorial support programs targeting museums. The DCM also saw volunteers become more active through the Board and committees, working alongside staff. As a result, by the end of the 1980s, the DCM was operating as a professional museum with a governance structure, exhibitions and collection management practices that reflected museum standards at that time. 

Employees were key to the changes that occurred. As explored in “The Importance of People,” the 1980s began with the three-year Klondike Heritage Services Project, which provided funding for people who engaged in museum work like collections management and exhibition development.  Importantly, a key project goal was to provide training and develop a pool of qualified personnel from which the Museum could hire. As articulated by the director/curator in the early 1980s, they provided on the job training to:

create a nucleus of locally qualified people from which permanent staff may be hired in the near future.

Jones-Gates 1981, 7

People working in the Museum through employment grants or on contracts with Parks Canada developed skills they could then apply to different museum projects (DCM Klondike Heritage Services Report). As a result, when the director/curator left in 1982, there were still people staffing the Museum with the skills needed to continue professionalizing. The Museum was able to increase its opening hours and expand its programming to include genealogical research, historic photographic services, and film presentations (DCM AGM President’s Report November 26, 1982). 

Demonstrating the Museum’s ongoing professionalization, staff and volunteers also developed new policies and procedures as well as a formal committee structure (Ross 1983). For example, in 1982, the Museum established a collections committee for the first time (DCM Klondike Heritage Services Support). Then, they developed new aims and objectives, which prompted work to remove irrelevant objects from the collection (DCM Board minutes July 12 1983) and the development of a collections policy (Thorp 1984). 

Despite the presence of staff, policies and committees, the historic building housing the Museum – the OTAB – continued to impede professionalization due to its poor condition. However, starting with a special grant to address issues highlighted in a fire inspector’s report in 1980 (see “Government Relationships“), the territorial government began to respond to concerns about the space with a series of investments discussed in “Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive.” In 1987, the DCM reopened in the OTAB, which was ready for year-round occupancy and new exhibitions.

New territorial project grants then enabled the Museum to develop exhibitions in the renovated building. The Museum also benefited from a new operations grant and support for a year-round curator from Yukon Government, which provided some stability for the position. Moreover, Museum staff began accessing advisory services from the new territorial museums advisor and conservator as they re-established a museum in the space. 

In sum, the 1980s were a period of change for the Dawson City Museum largely due to support from the territorial government. However, the change would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by the first director/ curator who began applying for employment grants and engaging in work (e.g., fundraising, contracts with Parks Canada) to support staffing at the DCM. The work of staff and renewed interest from volunteers then allowed for the development of a professional museum. 

Policy 

To explain the development of the Dawson City Museum (DCM) in the 1980s, three policies warrant revisiting – that is, the relationships with federal actors, employment programs, and the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB). We also see the development of a territorial support program targeting museums, which intersected with federal action and broader territorial objectives. These different policies intersected and overlapped to enable the DCM to reopen as a professional institution at the end of the 1980s. 

Federal agencies

The DCM’s relationship with Parks Canada was discussed in detail in “The Importance of People” as a significant policy in the late 1970s. The relationship continued to be important in the 1980s, growing as Parks Canada staff became more involved with the Museum.  Parks Canada employees most notably helped with engineering and architectural studies for the OTAB (DCM AGM President’s Report November 26, 1982) because Parks Staff were “very keen” to see the space renovated appropriately (Interview 5). The studies helped Museum staff and volunteers (alongside Parks Canada employees) advocate for financial support from Yukon government to restore the OTAB. Parks Canada staff also served on the Dawson City Museum board and committees (DCM Presidents Report November 15 1985), continuing to lend their expertise to the Museum (Interview 11). 

Providing additional assistance, the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) became more active in Yukon in the 1980s. For example, a mobile lab visited the DCM in August 1980, providing a report that outlined security problems and deficiencies in the protection of the collection (DCM Director’s Annual Report March 4th 1981). In addition to conducting surveys, the CCI provided training, such as the “Seminar and Collections Survey for Museums and Galleries in the Yukon” in Dawson City and Whitehorse (CCI 1987, December). Notably, actors from the CCI were also important to the territorial conservator who did day to day work with museums. As she described:

They were invaluable to me. They were the best thing. I don’t know if I could have performed as much as I did without their assistance. They were my lifeline, really, because I had full access to all of their Conservators via telephone whenever I wanted, just to consult on what was happening.  

Interview 14

In short, policy supporting museums is not limited to articulated funding programs. Advisory services and informal relationships with government actors can also be crucial. In the Dawson City Museum’s case, Parks Canada and the Canadian Conservation Institute provided invaluable expertise, which guided the Museum’s work as they professionalized collection management practices and other areas of activity. 

Employment programs

Within “The Importance of People,” we considered the significance of employment programs to the DCM’s development. Work grants continued to be relevant in the 1980s with a new territorial program in addition to the federal grants. Despite the significance of these programs, issues in implementation began to emerge, which continue to be relevant today. 

First, contract staffing, which employment and project grants encourage, challenges the development of a more professional museum due to a lack of continuity. More specifically, the DCM used employment programs and project grants to address problems or gaps. For example, several projects targeted the backlog of artifacts for accessioning – that is, adding the item(s) to the Museum’s collection. However, it was more difficult to fund the ongoing work needed to avoid a backlog and consistently have good collection management practices. As a result, the Collections Committee argued a lack of continuity in staffing was a barrier to conserving and cataloguing the collection appropriately. Although short term staffing allowed projects to take place, the short-term nature contributed to discrepancies in the work completed (DCM Collections Committee Report for 1988-9).


Second, there were some challenges in hiring summer students through the grant programs due to infrastructure issues in Dawson City. The Museum began relying on student work grants in 1980 when they hired six students to clean their collections storage. These student work grants became increasingly important (see “Dawson City Museum Timeline, 1980s”) and the students contributed to the professionalization of the Museum as they participated in a variety of projects. However, for summer staff, accommodation was an issue. As articulated in a museum newsletter:

The Museum is desperately seeking accommodation (room and board, or private accommodation) for two students this summer.

DCM Newsletter Vol. 7 no. 4

In short, employment grants were crucial to the museums ongoing work. However, problems were identified that were never fully addressed. In particular, Dawson City has a housing problem where the influx of people during the summer are unable to find adequate and affordable housing. Further, employment grants encourage contract staffing, which presents a challenge to implementing consistent practices. 

Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB)

From its occupancy in 1962, the OTAB has presented both challenges and opportunities for the Dawson City Museum (See “Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive”). By the 1980s, the challenges were acute and needed to be addressed if the Museum wanted to continue in the space. For example, a report found that 26% of the foundation posts had failed and 35% had rotten to an unsalvageable level (Ross 1982). Moreover, the lack of insulation and ice in the basement meant the Museum was unable to use the space year-round. As discussed in “Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive,” the territorial government invested 2.9 million dollars into the building in the 1980s, addressing the prescient issues and allowing the Museum to continue in the OTAB. 

New Territorial Museum Policy

While an articulated policy was not in place until 1989-1990, the territorial government established a museum support program during the 1980s. First, Yukon created a Heritage Branch and grants that targeted museums. Then the territorial government employed a museums advisor who began to work with federal actors and community museums to maximize the support Yukon museums received. The period ends with the release of an articulated policy, which rationalized the support available.

Consultation on an articulated community museums policy began in 1980 after the release of the Kyte Report. The Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA) commissioned the Kyte Report to provide a profile on Yukon Museums and training. It recommended the definition of a territorial policy with a comprehensive museum development program, which led to discussions between Yukon Government and the YHMA.  However, policy development was delayed while government created new Departments and Branches. Once a Heritage Branch was established, hiring a new Director (YLA 24.5.4) then Museums Advisor further delayed the process. 

Despite the delays in articulating a policy, Yukon community museums began to receive operational and maintenance funding that targeted museums in 1982-1983 when Yukon Government provided a total of 30,000 split between 6 institutions (the Dawson City Museum received the largest single amount – 9,000). In 1985, Yukon government began covering part of the cost for a director position at the two largest museums – The Dawson City Museum and the MacBride Museum. The curator subsidy was critical for long term stability. As an Interview Participant described:

It made a big difference to have core funding available for one person in the museums… It’s really necessary if you’re going to move from just a tourist operation that opens for a couple of months in the summer.

Interview 7

In addition to operational and staff support, Yukon developed several project grants (e.g., major artifact stabilization, exhibition case construction, major exhibit development, etc.). The DCM accessed these programs, which directed their work toward projects for which they could receive funding. For example, the DCM used the major exhibit development program following building renovations to re-develop their permanent exhibitions (YLA 26.3.7). 

Importantly, Yukon Government’s project funding deliberately enabled better access to cost-sharing federal programs (YHMA 1982). For example, the territorial Conservation Security grant was developed to match one from the federal Museums Assistance Program (MAP). At the time, MAP provided funding to community museums across the country, but Yukon museums were not getting equitable amounts. So, the new territorial Museums Advisor worked to improve working relationships with federal actors, touring Yukon museums with a MAP advisor and meeting with the MAP director in Dawson City (DCM 1984 Annual General Meeting Minutes). 

The federal government also provided funding that enabled the territory to expand their advisory program. For example, in 1986-1987 MAP funding allowed Yukon Heritage Branch to purchase conservation monitoring equipment for museums and an upright freezer (Heritage Branch 1988). More importantly, Yukon hired a conservator through a shared funding program (Ibid.). The conservator was invaluable to the Dawson City Museum. As one former Director described:

She would come up for a few days, or [a] week at a time, and teach the staff about … cleaning the artifacts, and care of the artifacts, and she’d come up and do stuff herself. That was really good that we had access to a Conservator, and we used her lots, especially when we got into fabrics.

Interview 11

The Department of Heritage provided the Conservator who taught our Curators, and me, a lot more about conservation plus did lots of the work and got those little things that keep track of the humidity and all that going, and looking at the records, and making sure the building was properly conditioned.

Interview 11

Notably, the conservator responded to the Museums’ needs. For example, after the building reopened in 1987, she helped with the creation of new exhibition mounts. As she described:

My understanding of my interaction with the community museums was basically to try and guide and train them in preserving their collections. In my mind that meant all aspects of the collection, and often the community museums didn’t have a lot of staff, so I would hire people to work with me, and I would go there and try and help them with any exhibits that were going on or reorganize their storage areas, create storage mounts, or clean the artifacts. Yeah, it was a lot. Yeah, the whole gamut is what I had been led to believe was my job, basically. Helping the community museums preserve their collections. 

Interview 14

As Yukon enacted a museums policy with grants and advisory services, such as a conservator, they also made steps toward the development of an articulated policy. Yukon Museums Policy and Systems Plan was circulated to museums for feedback in 1987. Importantly, the planning and policy development began in earnest during a period of planning for Yukon government. In 1986, they began Yukon 2000 – a consultation process about Yukon’s future, which led to several papers, programs, and plans. After the related consultations with museums, Yukon’s Museums Policy was released in 1989 and a draft Artifact Conservation and Security Policy began to circulate (Meehan 1989). 

In sum, Yukon Government developed programs for community museums and then a museum policy in the 1980s. It included operational and project funding as well as an advisory program with a conservator and museums advisor. These initiatives enabled the Dawson City Museum to fund projects following their major renovations, such as exhibit renewal, and helped the Museum continue professionalizing with advice from experts. The development of the museum policy institutionalized the support, which continues today. 

Community

During the 1980s, we continue to see the community contribute to the Museum through donated artefacts. While personal in nature to their donors, these items helped to create a substantial collection for the Museum, which was the largest in Yukon at the time. This collection, built primarily by the Museum’s communities, demonstrates how the Museum was valued. It indicates that the Museum is part of the community and part of the history of its inhabitants. Community also intersected with and shaped the development of the DCM through relationships as volunteers and staff acted as both of the Museum and of the community. 

Staff and Volunteers

Although there was only one full-time, year-round employee at the Museum – that is, the director / curator, there were a core group of contract staff who worked for the Museum periodically through the 1980s (See “The Importance of People”). These people were both museum staff and community members. It is thus important to consider – what is the Museum? Is the museum the collection? Is the Museum the building? Is the Museum the people who are active in the space? If museums are the relationships that enact the museum – that is, relationships between the building, collection, staff / volunteers, visitors, and community – then it is important to consider the Museum as part of the community because its staff and volunteers are also community members. They have multiple memberships in both community and the Museum.

The development of Quilted Emotions helps illustrate the museum staff and, by extension, the Museum as part of the community. After the Museum opened in 1987 following the renovations, the South Gallery was a big black box.  Wanting to put something colorful in the space while they developed permanent exhibitions, Museum staff developed a temporary quilt display. One Interview Participant recalled:

We were looking for a colorful exhibit to fill the space while we were developing a plan for the permanent exhibits.

Most of the women in town were involved in – not most of the women. I mean, there [were] I’m guessing ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty people who had done quilt squares for various quilts. And so, it was quite a large group of young women who were involved in the activity.

So, it was kind of natural to put in something that was really colorful that we could light nicely and it would make a beautiful temporary exhibit.

Interview 7

Importantly, the community involved in the creation of the quilts cannot be isolated from the community of people who enacted the Museum. Museum staff were also members of the local community. People who were involved in developing exhibitions at the Museum were also participating in the quilt creation. They could partner with the community to create an exhibition, in part, because they were also part of that community (“Quilted Emotions”). 

The quilt exhibition demonstrates staffs’ position within a local community. Importantly, staff were also members of the broader community interested in the Klondike. As explored in “The Importance of People,” youth began working at the Museum in the 1970s, continuing into the 1980s, because it was an interesting place to work. Contracts and project funding occasionally supported staff research, which contributed to the Museum’s collections and exhibition themes while keeping the contract staff engaged in work that interested them. Responding to requests, the Museum also expanded its programming to include genealogical research in the 1980s (DCM AGM President’s Report November 26, 1982). The DCM, thereby, became a hub for those interested in researching the Klondike. Staff were both attracted to the Museum and engaged others at the Museum as members of this community bound through interest rather than geography. 

The Museum content also attracted volunteers. The Museum’s first director/curator left the Museum at a time when the Board and volunteers were not as active as needed. Her departure seems to have prompted change and the development of a more active committee structure. During the 1980s, we begin to see a more involved local community through volunteerism. These local volunteers were valued as experts and consulted accordingly. As one former Director observed:

 The thing about Dawson City [is that] lots of families have been there for a very long time, and some since Gold Rush time, so they were involved in some of the decision-making of [where] this piece went or what was happening when, so that was a part of the community.

Interview 11

The local community participated on museum committees, the Board, and in the work of the institution. A Director from the period noted, there were an:

astronomical number of hours that were put in through volunteering. 

Interview 11

These volunteer hours contributed to the shape of the collections, through participation on the collections committee, and the development of exhibitions, through participation on the display committee or consultation on themes. For example, with the help of volunteers in 1982, the Museum improved the south gallery with a newspaper office, secondhand store, and a fire display. The north wing was reorganized to include an audio visuals room (DCM Klondike Heritage Services Report).  

In short, the local community actively participated in the Museum’s work. As discussed above, this local community included Parks Canada staff who sat on committees and lent their expertise. However, it also included other members of the community with expertise on the community and heritage represented in the Museum. The people who enacted the Museum as staff and volunteers were also active members of both the local Dawson community and a community of people interested in the Klondike. As such, the Museum can be discussed both in relation to community and as a member of community. 

Conclusions 

The “Importance of People” highlighted the role of staff in professionalizing the Museum, the role of Parks Canada, and the role of project funding in directing professionalization efforts. These factors continued to be important as they contributed to a foundation for change enacted in the 1980s. However, perhaps more importantly, the 1980s are a significant period of territorial investment in the Museum. Territorial support included the development of grants for museum operations, curator salaries, and specific kinds of projects. Yukon Government also developed an advisory program with a Museums Advisor and Conservator. Considering the Dawson City Museum more specifically, territorial investment into the Old Territorial Administration Building in combination with increased operational funding, support for a curator’s salary, and then a series of project grants enabled the Museum to establish itself as a professional institution with collection management practices and exhibitions reflecting the trends of the period. 

Considering the importance of territorial support during the period, it is tempting to focus on the subnational level in isolation to explain change at the Museum. However, the federal government had a key role in prompting the development of a territorial program. Most notably, territorial investment was important to enable the Museums to better access federal support. The federal government also provided the initial funding for a staff position, expanding the advisory services provided. Moreover, employment programs continued to intersect with the available project funding to provide staffing at the Museum. Policies and programs intersected to enable the Museum’s work. At the same time, greater community involvement as volunteers and through the board or committees also increased. These people provided invaluable expertise and labour.

What do you think? Is there anything else you would pull out as importance in this consideration of the DCM’s development in the 1980s?

References

CCI. 1987. Newsletter. December. 

Crook, Peg (Ed.). 1987. Newsletter. April. Yukon Historical and Museums Association. 

DCM – digitized museum records. 

Heritage Branch. Tourism. Yukon. 1988. “ From the Heritage Branch.” Newsletter 1988 – 3. Yukon Historical and Museums Association. 

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

Kyte, John E. 1980, November. Museums in Yukon: A Profile and Training Report. Prepared for Yukon Historical and Museums Association. 

Meehan, Joanne. 1989, October 26. Letter to the Museums Advisor. Museums Policy. Box 15. Dawson City Museum Archives. 

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. 

Ross, Brian. 1983. President’s / Executive Committee Report. 982-1983 Reports. Native exhibit 1984 proposal to foundations. Box 8. Dawson City Museum Archives. 

Thorp, Valerie. 1984. Collections Committee. Collections Committee 1984. Box 8. Dawson City Museum Archives.

YHMA. 1986. March, 1986. Yukon Historical & Museums Association Newsletter.

YHMA. 1982a. “YTG Heritage Branch.” Newsletter, 10: 21. 

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