A Community Hub: The Dawson City Museum in the 1990s

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 (see: “Dawson City’s Community Attic,” “The Importance of People,” and “Territorial Interest and Investment“). Second, we have developed key themes related to policy and community (See: “Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive“). To solicit feedback, we 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 fourth 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 1990s?

After summarizing the answers and outlining our research approach, we give a short overview of the Museum’s development in the 1990s. We consider significant policies, focusing the importance of intersecting funding mechanisms and celebration funding.  Then, a section on community activity describes the significance of private donations and the continued presence of museum workers within the community. Finally, the paper concludes with a summary and research implications.  


What are some key moments, influential policies, and community activities that defined the Dawson City Museum’s development in the 1990s?

  1. Key moments: Gold was “discovered” in Yukon in 1896, leading to the Klondike Gold Rush from 1897 to 1899. The 1990s was, therefore, a decade of anniversaries in Dawson City. 
  2. Influential policies:
    • Policies discussed in previous chronologies continued to be important – that is, the Old Territorial Administration Building, relationships with federal actors, employment funding, and advisory services from Yukon government.
    • The 1990s highlight the significance of intersecting policies to hiring staff at the institution who then expanded the Museum’s offerings with more dynamic public programming.
  3. Community Activities:   
    • As seen with policies, actions discussed elsewhere continue to be significant – that is, artifact donations and the presence of skilled people within the community. 
    • The 1990s also saw significant donations that more actively shaped the work of the museum – that is, the Jones and Lind family donations.

Research Method

The working paper relies on 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 interviews with the Director for most of the 1990s and an employee who started as a summer student in 1990. Further, multiple interview participants started in the 1970s and then continued to be involved with the Museum in some form through the 1990s.


As discussed in “The Importance of People” and “Territorial Interest and Investment,” the 1970s and 1980s saw the professionalization of the Dawson City Museum (DCM). Due to employment grants, project funding, and contracts with federal agencies, a core group of people received on the job training in museum work. They were then available for contract positions at the Museum, contributing to projects that turned the DCM into a professional institution with a building ready for year-round occupancy, new exhibitions, and a documented collection. Once established as a museum following best practices, the DCM began to expand its activities. As an Interview Participant explained, the 1990s were:

a really exciting time to be at the Museum… it was a really fun place to be.

There was a lot of hope and a lot of excitement about ongoing developments and potential.

Interview 10

These developments involved expanded public programming, new collections storage, and changes to the permanent exhibition.

At the beginning of the 1990s, projects continued focusing on professionalization as the Museum worked toward accepted standards of the day. Notably, best practices continued evolving as work took place. As such, the territorial advisory services were key to the Museum’s work, helping the DCM keep pace and directing funding toward contemporary concerns. For example, the Museum followed advice and used territorial funding to purchase a computer then support staff and volunteer training on using computers for administrative tasks and collection management (Directors Report February 27, 1990; Director’s Report March 27 1990). 

The new computers helped make the archival and photo collections more accessible to visitors, which was a key goal throughout the 1990s (See “Dawson City Museum Timeline 1990s). As described in interviews:

What we were doing … was establishing the records … making [them] available, I guess I should say. Making available the material so that researchers or writers or whatnot could come, and find the material, and get the work done. 

Interview 8

During the 1990s, I was able to secure funding through several grants to continue copying, cataloging [the] historic photo collection and developing a finding aid for it. We had, I think, a combination of grants that we accessed, and in total there were probably four to five other people that were hired to work during that time on this project.

Interview 10

The collection also became more accessible through a more dynamic exhibition program. The Museum had created its first travelling exhibition in 1985 – “Klondike Youth, a Photographic Display.” In the 1990s, travelling exhibitions expanded beyond photographic materials. Most notably, “Klondike Gold” – a travelling exhibition that celebrated the anniversary of the gold rush –included a CD ROM game with films, photos, and archival records (YHMA 1994, December). 

In addition to making the collection more accessible with documentation and exhibitions, the Museum targeted the local community with public programs designed to draw them into the institution. For example, a new lecture series explicitly aimed to raise community awareness of the Museum (DCM AGM Minutes April 29 1992). Staff also began working more actively with the local school, developing their first example of curriculum linked programming (DCM Newsletter vol. 11 no. 2). Importantly, activities targeting the local community were made possible, in part, because of Old Territorial Administration Building renovations in the 1980s, which made the building more accessible year-round.

The Museum continued providing a tourist attraction in the summer and developed a more active program for these visitors as well. Live performances became a draw, such as “Discovery Claims” – a popular performance that involved multiple characters claiming to have found the first nugget (DCM Newsletter vol. 11 no. 3). In 1995, these performances expanded outside the building as the Museum partnered with Parks Canada to supply dramatic performances throughout Dawson City (DCM Newsletter vol. 12 no. 1; see documents available in 95 seed challenge, Box 23b, Dawson City Museum Archives).

Alongside an increase in public facing activities and attention, the 1990s saw significant donations that further spurred the Museum’s development. First, a donation from the Jones family led to work on the Klondike History Library and a commitment to having an archivist. Then, the DCM began construction on a new storage facility and planning for an exhibition with funding from the Lind Family Foundation.

In short, the 1990s was a period of expansion for the Dawson City Museum. The expansion can be explained, in part, with a consideration of government policy and community action in relation to the DCM’s work. As noted elsewhere (see “The Importance of People”), project and employment grants continued to be crucial. They provided the support for staff and directed the Museum’s activities toward projects that expanded its work. The 1990s are also notable because it was a period of celebration in Yukon. There was increased attention to and funding for heritage related activities. As a result, the DCM became a community hub with active programming and a feeling of hope for the future. 


From a Yukon Government perspective, the 1990s are significant for the release of the Museums Artifact Conservation Policy and the Yukon Gold Explorers Passport Program. However, neither of these were described as significant to the Dawson City Museum in the interviews conducted, or the archival documents consulted from the period.

At the federal level, there were cuts to project grants for community museums– that is the Museums Assistance Program. However, these cuts seemingly did not affect the Dawson City Museum until the end of the 1990s when they were denied a grant in the middle of a project.  

Throughout the 1990s, policies discussed elsewhere continued to be significant, including:

Employment Grants “I started working for the Museum in 1994 and was originally taken on as a Young Canada Works student. I was hired back the following summer and trained into the position of the registrar and worked for many years in that capacity – the registrar and collections manager” (Interview 10).  
Relationships with federal actors “The Museum also did partnerships in formal and informal ways with Parks Canada. They had a fully operating and staffed curatorial lab here at the time that I started at the Museum. And so, the expertise was shared back to the Museum for people like me, new in the field without formal education. I got to work directly with conservators. So that was an informal program that the Museum was facilitating” (Interview 10) 
The Old Territorial Administration Building   “All of that, the maintenance of the building, the cutting of the grass, whatever that kind of stuff, the shoveling of the sidewalks, we didn’t have to worry about that at all.” (Interview 8) 
Territorial Advisory Services “As somebody who was starting on as a registrar or collections manager, most of my training related to managing the records came from the Museums’ Unit and all of my training and expertise related to how to care for that collection came from the conservator” (Interview 10). 

While these policies were previously considered, their use in the 1990s warrant additional discussion because changes in their implementation help explain the Dawson City Museum’s development in this period. For instance, the territorial advisory services expanded to include a collection management position, leading to specific projects at the DCM. Employment policies are also notable because they intersected with project funding to enable the Museum to expand staffing and, therefore, its programming. Further, the project related funding was shaped by the decade of celebration the territory.  

There are several trends and issues that began in the 1990s, but the significance was not fully realized until later. The discussion below briefly mentions some of those items. However, others will be discussed in more detail as part of the next chronological working paper to explain change, including the finalization of the Umbrella Final Agreement Between the Government of Canada, the Council for Yukon Indians, and the Government of Yukon

Intersecting policies: Employment and Project funding

The number of employment grants used in addition to project funding to support employment costs expanded during the 1990s. Notably, in 1994/95 the Museum employed 50 people with a payroll of $344,180 (DCM Newsletter vol. 12 no. 1), which is more than the total expenses reported in 2018 (Source). A contract worker during the period remarked:

During the 1990s … it was a busy place.

Interview 9

There are a number of factors that shaped the Museum’s use of project and employment funding at the time. First, the funding available for student employment expanded. Second, there were a variety of project grants beyond the ones targeting museums, such as funding relating to celebrations and grants from Yukon Lotteries. Finally, as discussed below in a reflection on community, the presence and availability of people already in Dawson City with the training needed to do the work was crucial. 

As noted elsewhere:

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”).

Territorial Interest and Investment

In the 1990s, two federal programs are most significant in increasing access to student employees – that is, Summer Career Placement and Young Canada Works. While Summer Career Placement replaced an existing program, it increased the amount available and Young Canada Works offered a new stream that specifically targeted community museums. The Canadian Museums Association administered Young Canada Works for the first time in 1996 (see documents available in YCW CMA 1996, Box 23, Dawson City Museum Archives), providing the DCM with 49 work weeks for five high school students. Additional funding from Dawson City and the Summer Career Placement program enabled the Museum to employ a total of 14 students for the summer (Swackhammer 1996b).

The Museum used the student employment funding to expand public programming targeting tourists, such as costumed interpretation outside the Museum. Parks Canada had previously provided the street interpretation. However, in 1995, they began to reduce their public presentations and street theater (Swackhammer 1995). As the Director from the period recalled:

Klondike National Historic Sites, they had the history, they had the reference, they had all that kind of stuff, they had workers that were on the street, and the money. All of a sudden, they couldn’t hire those people to be face-to-face with the visitors, which was really strange.

Anyway, the Museum made arrangements, we borrowed the costumes, sometimes we even stole their plot or whatever they were doing, and we put people out on the street. 

Interview 8

When the Museum began to address the gap, the City of Dawson began providing funding from the Centennial Events Fund to offset the costs of summer student wages (DCM Newsletter vol. 12 no. 2). By 1997, the City was providing $10,000 from the fund. 

In addition to a grant from the City’s Centennial Events Fund, the Museum received support directly from Yukon Government relating to anniversary celebrations.  Notably, at the DCM’s Annual General Meeting in 1990, the Heritage Branch Director reported on cuts to the territory’s museum support program, advising the Museum seek funding from alternative sources. He also suggested the Museum develop a traveling exhibition on the Gold Rush due to the importance of the Yukon Anniversaries Commission (DCM AGM Minutes April 27, 1990). The Museum followed this recommendation, developing Klondike Gold (YLA 28.2.80).

In addition to emphasizing anniversaries to access available funding, the Museum diversified its funding sources throughout the 1990s. They used a range of project grants that targeted their work rather than museums specifically. For example, using grants from the Canadian Council of Archives, the Museum upgraded archival storage and produced an inventory (DCM Newsletter vol. 11 no. 2). Yukon’s Community Development Fund and grants from Yukon Lotteries were also important, providing key support to the DCM’s activities. 

In short, the DCM expanded and developed in the 1990s due to a variety of intersecting project and employment grants. Notably, a number of these programs became less accessible or unavailable at the end of the 1990s, which we will discuss in the next chronological consideration. Further, the availability of people with the skills to do the project work was also critical, which we discuss below.  

Yukon Collections Program 

The federal government and national trends in museum practice continued to influence the services provided to community museums through Yukon Government during the 1990s. Yukon expanded its advisory program, which include a Museums Advisor and Conservator, to help with collection management, hiring a Collections Registration Coordinator. The Coordinator then worked to standardize collection management across the territory with funding from the federal government. 

Yukon government facilitated a series of collection management projects in community museums through the 1990s:

  • First, Yukon Government received funding from the federal government for a pilot project to register and automate museum collection records in 1990 (YLA 27.2.17).
  • Then, Yukon hired a Collections Registration Coordinator to facilitate the Artifact Inventory and Cataloguing project, encouraging better documentation practices (see documents in Admin correspondence director misc. Box 17b. Dawson City Museum Archives). 
  • By the end of the 1990s, the territorial government designed a collection management database for community museums further enabling best practices related to documenting and digitizing collections (Ball 2004). 

As part of these projects, the new Coordinator provided direct assistance to community museums seeking to inventory, catalogue, and better manage their collections records in the 1990s. As one Interview Participant recalled:

I remember working with [the Coordinator] in figuring out how to implement the standard fields and how to deal with the myriad of issues that you deal with…

Interview 9

The territorial program was particularly important to the Dawson City Museum because it forced the institution to develop a more coherent system for collection management. The Museum’s collection work had primarily taken place as part of project grants through the 1980s and early 1990s without consistency in who was responsible and how the work was done. As an employee from the period described:

There had been so many people over the years… with the best of intentions coming in [and] realizing – Oh, we need some organizational structure here. Each successive person invented their own system, which then would get replaced by another system.

Interview 10

The Coordinator and the projects he facilitated helped the Museum with “untangling” (Interview 10) past systems into a more standardized practice.

In short, as described in the overview, much of the DCM’s work during the 1990s focused on making their collection more accessible through documentation. To that end, they worked with the territorial Collections Registration Coordinator to properly inventory the collection and digitize records. The work provided a better foundation for collections management moving forward with a more standardized practice.


As see with policy, the community continued to influence the Museum in ways discussed in the past chronological considerations. Notably donations to the collection continued to be important. As one Interview Participant who worked during the 1990s explained:

 We weren’t actively going out and searching for artifacts for the collection, but we would get regular offerings. 

Interview 10

There are three additional factors that are important to consider in relation to the Dawson City Museum’s development. First, in addition to the ongoing donations to the collection, there were two donations that significantly shaped the Museum’s work. Second, there were people in the community with skills available to work and the Director was seen as an important member of the community. Finally, the expanded exhibition program provided the impetus for the Museum to seek out community input. 


The 1990s were a period of significant donations to the Museum. As noted above, there continued to be donated artifacts, which are an ongoing manner that community – both local and a broader community of people with an interest in the Klondike – influence the Museum. There were also two donations that had a more pronounced influence on the scope of the Museum’s work in that time – that is, the Lind family and Jones family donations. 

First, Ed and Star Jones approach the Museum to donate an extensive collection of archival material, publications, and photographs. The donation included the stipulation that the Museum to develop an appropriate history library to house the collection and employ a full-time archivist (DCM Minutes 14 January 1998). The materials were accepted and the library was dedicated in July 1998 (DCM Minutes 8 July 1998).

Second, the Lind family began talking to the Museum director about a donation to commemorate John G. Lind in 1997. The Museum used their donation to leverage additional funding to build the John G. Lind storage facility. The new space allowed for proper artifact storage with new compact shelving. The donation also provided funding for a new exhibition on the pre-gold rush period, which involved some renovations to create a an exhibition space. While both projects also involved public support, the Lind donation provided the impetus and seed money needed. 

In short, the Lind and Jones families shaped the Museum’s work with significant donations. The Lind family donation led to a storage facility and new exhibition. The Jones donation led to expanded library services and promises for future practice. While the Museum was unable to maintain a full-time archivist position, the donation shaped the Museum’s emphasis at the time. 

Membership in the Community

As stated elsewhere, people are a museums most valuable resource. During the 1990s, there were people in the community, with a relationship to community that helped the Museum’s development. When the Director began at the Museum in 1994, he asked those around him for help. He recalled:

I can remember when I got to Dawson… I had a meeting of everybody that I could gather together in the boardroom there. Essentially, I said to them, “tell me what’s going on. Tell me what needs to be done. Tell me the things that I don’t know about that need to be looked after. It’ll be my job to try to find the money, and the staff, but I don’t know the tasks that have to be fulfilled.” 

They gave me a list of stuff, and some of the things we managed to deal with, and some of the things we couldn’t.

Interview 8

The quote draws attention to the Director’s approach to managing the Museum, which relied on relationship building, and the presence of people with knowledge about what needed to be done. 

During the 1990s, the Museum continued to employ a core group of people who started on employment grants or contracts related to projects in the 1970s and 1980s. The Director at the time recalled:

Those folks [were] very important for … the work of the Museum, the day-to-day job of the Museum. They were the most important crew, ultimately… Dealing with that kind of stuff, that was beyond my capacity. My capacity was to find the money, and find the right people, and put those things together. 

Interview 8

As a museum worker, right from the very beginning, my responsibility was to find staff and to train staff. Then to hire them so that they could do the work that they were trained to do. 

Interview 8

As the quotes demonstrate, the Director saw it as his job to find money to employ people with capacity for museum work. Their continued presence in the community provided the Museum with the ability to build and expand on past work. 

The Director’s relationship to these employees as community and the Dawson community more broadly was important. As he explained: 

The Museum, and I, as a representative of the Museum, was an active member in the community.

Interview 8

Several people interviewed discussed the importance of the Executive Director to the Museum’s development in the 1990s due, in part, to this role within community. As an Interview Participant described:

The atmosphere at the Museum, especially with the Director that we had at the helm. It was a very opening, welcome, casual kind of atmosphere that worked really hard to sort of punch above its weight as far as providing a really good experience for visitors. 

The Director, as well, set the tone. He was fairly, you know, a gregarious outgoing, warm person. 

Interview 10

In short, people are crucial to museum work. The 1990s are a significant period of development for the Museum because there were people in the community who knew what needed to be done. Employment and project grants provided the funding needed to employ them. At the same time, the Executive Director listened to these people and formed relationships with members of the community more broadly. As a result, the Museum became a community hub. 


During the 1990s, the Museum developed a more active exhibition program. These exhibitions were a manner that the community influenced Museum content. As a Participant explained:

But there were tons of exhibits that came on suggestion from the community. People would walk into the Museum and say, “hey, I’ve got a great idea, and I’d like to do this.”

Interview 10

The chart below highlights some examples:

Dawson City at Forty Below Zero“There was a really awesome project that they did one year where they pulled together just interested community members that wanted to tell visitors what their life was like in the winter, and they helped them take good quality photographs and they created a slideshow for the summer. And it contained sort of these iconic images of what a day in the life of a Dawsonite was like in the winter” (Interview 10). 
Klondike Gold “I was there during the time that the traveling exhibit for the centennial of the Gold Rush was coming together and that involved multiple stakeholders and partners. And it also involved a lot of community input for everything from gold miners donating gold and sharing their story about what they wanted the world to know about their experience to community members in general that had a buy-in about what narrative was going out there in the world about their town. And so there just seemed to be a lot of interplay between the community voicing their opinion and then that directing exhibits and activities within the Museum” (Interview 10).  
 Yukon Order of Pioneers The Museum developed an exhibition marking the centennial of the Yukon Order of Pioneers, which was installed around Dawson City (See documents available in YTG YOOP exhibit, Box 21a, Dawson City Museum Archives). 

The quotes demonstrate the exhibitions as a way the Museum involved the community, shaping the content. Moreover, the more active exhibition program provided the opportunity to circulate the community’s stories both within Dawson and outside the Yukon. 


In sum, the 1990s was a period of expansion for the Dawson City Museum, building on the foundation laid in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, the Museum began to offer more dynamic exhibition schedule and public programs to attract both local and tourism audiences. There are a number of policies of significance to this change. However, perhaps most importantly, changes in employment funding led to more student related grants and, therefore, a larger pool of staff in the summer to development and implement public programs. There was also funding relating to celebrations, encouraging the development of exhibitions that celebrated the Yukon. The celebrations were a significant community activity during the period and the community influenced the exhibitions, contributing expertise. 

As one of the largest employers at the time and an active space, the Dawson City Museum became a kind of community hub. Notably, the project and employment funding meant the Museum was well staffed with people who had been with the Museum since the 1970s and 1980s. It could not have become a community hub without these people. Moreover, the Director emphasized listening – listening to those involved with the Museum, listening to the community. 


Ball, Drew. 2004. Museums Status Report. Blue Binder. Box 33. Dawson City Museum Archives.

DCM – documents from the Museum’s digitized record.

Swackhammer, Mac. 1995. Letter to the Canada Employment Centre. 95 SEED Challenge. Box 23b. Dawson City Museum Archives.

Swackhammer, Mac. 1996a. Final Report. Summer Students SEED 1996. Box 23. Dawson City Museum Archives.

Swackhammer, Mac. 1996b. Final Report. YCW CMA 1996. Box 23. Dawson City Museum Archives.

YHMA. 1994, December. “Summary: Yukon Museum Activities.” YHMA Newsletter: 5-6.

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