As part of the Dawson City Museum Project, I conducted fifteen interviews with people associated with the institution historically and today. Most of the transcripts have been approved. So, my Research Assistant and I are analyzing them now. The Interview Analysis series considers this analysis and the insights people have provided.
Within this post, I consider commentary on the Yukon Government’s advisory services for museum collections. I argue there has been a shift from a service seen as helpful to a service that provides help, which is not necessarily responsive to the Dawson City Museum’s needs.
As described in Territorial Interest and Investment, Yukon Government started an advisory service for community museums in the 1980s with a museums advisor and a conservator position. Interview Participants who worked at the Dawson City Museum in the 1980s and 1990s described these individuals as both helpful and responsive to the Museum’s needs.
Here are some examples:
The conservators were fabulous people. They had a series of them. They were just so supportive and excited about the collections, and happy to come in and spend long periods of time working on the collections.Interview 7
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.
They spent a lot of time, if it wasn’t in person – and I don’t know how many weeks per year we had full access to them in person – but they were both always at the end of the phone which they still are. So I was in conversation with those people as a resource on a weekly basis to do my job.Interview 10
[It] was really good that we had access to a Conservator, and we used her lots, especially when we got into fabrics…I just remember her coming up, and like I said, with textiles in particular, because I had no idea that you had to put stuff in to puff out the sleeves or the cotton would all collapse. Things like that.Interview 11
As these quotes demonstrate, conversations about the Museums Unit and, in particular, the conservator position were overwhelmingly positive when talking to people who worked for the Dawson City Museum in the 1980s and 1990s.
As described in Declining Role of the Museum Advisor, the Museum Advisor became less available to the Dawson City Museum by the end of the 1990s. In the 2000s, the position was eliminated. However, the advisory service still exists and there is a conservator position. The Dawson City Museum continues to benefit from the conservator position and staff value the assistance provided for collection management. However, they begin to describe the advisory services as providing help rather than being helpful in a responsive way.
An Interview Participant working in the 2010s and 2020s described the relationship differently than those above. While grateful for the conservator’s assistance and advice, she noted:
It’s a bit frustrating because they’re coming from a well-staffed, well-funded unit, and their suggestions become a bit tone-deaf in understaffed, under- resourced museums, particularly tone deaf when they know the funding they’ve given us is very much. We can’t do the re-org they’re suggesting if we’re also working on a temporary exhibit, or there’s only two of us here and one of us has to do this or that. The luxury that they have with resources in terms of money, people, time in their own unit is not reflected in the community museums, and often they seem to forget that.
When they do come up, they’re very focused on a small task, that is absolutely needed, but maybe isn’t the most effective for a museum with this size of collection, with this many responsibilities.Interview 6
The priorities of the staff within the Heritage and Museum’s unit then shape museum activities in ways that do not always align with museum staff’s priorities. Describing the implementation of the new collection management software, the curator notes it was a good idea, but at the same time it was not responsive to the Museum’s need. She stated:
With the database specifically, it’s absolutely something we want. It took a lot of time on my behalf to prepare that stuff for them, so a lot of time out of our available resources. It was not something we were necessarily compensated for, not that we were looking for that, but it seems very much like a YG project that they wanted to achieve.
We benefited from it, without a doubt, but it has also created a number of problems that has almost nullified, sometimes, the inventory we did. We’ve lost a lot of pictures, pictures are being switched over, the numbers have been switched over, there’s a lot of reconciliation that needs to happen through that. There’s obviously the learning curve of adapting to a new database, and it was just before our new exhibits. Trying to find the locations for certain things have changed, and the new database was introduced when we were moving items as well. It was really not the best timing.Interview 6
She went on to say:
It comes back more to the feeling that they want to do certain things, and we are asked to participate as opposed to being responsive to the things that we really need.Interview 6
In other words, the Museums Unit provides help in ways that impose obligation on the Museum’s time rather than respond to the Museum’s needs to extend its capacity. Providing another example of a failure to address Museum needs, the Participant described visits from the territorial conservator as follows.
And say we have a territorial conservator visit, they may focus on cleaning one statue, because they’re very focused on it, and that’s fantastic because we could not have done otherwise, but we really need, I don’t know, the 50 other things [to have] a light dusting or something like that. This is not a specific example, it’s just more of a general example about the focus that they offer [it] isn’t necessarily as useful as a more general support could be.Interview 6
In short, the Museum’s Unit has shifted from a service that is helpful and responsive to one that provides help, which is not necessarily responsive to museum needs and can impose obligations that challenge the human resource capacity.
The shift toward bring helpful to providing help is an example of policy change in practice that does not reflect an explicit or articulated change. Interview Participants identified a number of factors that contributed to the change:
- The Museums Unit was combined with heritage.
- There is no longer a museums advisor position.
- Yukon Government staff have more responsibilities associated with Yukon Government heritage-related sites (see The Beringia Centre as Competitor)
- An increase in the number of museums and cultural centers receiving assistance.
These unarticulated changes are significant because they alter how the Dawson City Museum staff experience policy. Rather than relying on the advisory service to extend their resources and knowledge, the service begins to extract a more pronounced human resource cost, which influences what the Museum can accomplish and when.
What do you think? Have I understood the significance of the described changes?