The Dawson City Museum project asks – How has the Dawson City Museum evolved in relation to government policy and community action?
We are taking two approaches to answering the question. First, we are considering the data chronologically to discuss the evolution of the Museum over time. Second, we have developed key themes related to policy and community. To solicit feedback, I will post a series of working papers that consider the data in these two ways – that is, chronologically and thematically. These papers will inform the final report for the Dawson City Museum and podcast miniseries. Past Papers include:
Providing the fifth and final 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 21st century?
After summarizing the answers and outlining our research approach, I give a short overview of the Museum’s development in the 21st century. The overview outlines a significant change from the 1990s when the Museum was a community hub to the 21st century when successive Directors have struggled to connect with the local community. I consider significant policies, focusing on the decline in support for the Museum despite an increase in operational funding and support for an ongoing renewal project. Then, a section on community activity describes the significance of the establishment of other nonprofits and the departure of key people from Dawson City. The paper concludes the period is defined by a struggle to connect with the local community given limited resources and related inconsistencies despite significant investment in expansion or renewal projects due to a persistent need for increased support to operational costs like salaries.
What are some key moments, influential policies, and community activities that defined the Dawson City Museum’s development in the 21st century?
- Key Moments
- The Museum experienced financial difficulty in the early 2000s and had to lay off staff.
- The Director changed in 2002, 2007, and 2015, contributing to inconsistencies in operations.
- There were significant expansion or renewal projects during the period. Thanks to support from the Lind family and project grants, the Museum opened the Lind Gallery and new storage facilities in the early 2000s. In 2021, the Museum reopened with renewed exhibitions.
- Influential policies
- Policies considered in previous chronological considerations continued to be influential. In particular, the territorial museum policy, project grants from both the federal and territorial levels, student employment funding, relationships with federal actors, and the use of the Old Territorial Administration Building have ongoing significance.
- The 21st century is also notable for the policies and programs which are no longer significant to the Museum’s operations, such as employment funding related to unemployment.
- In 1998 the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in negotiated its land claim and self-governing agreement. As a self-governing First Nation, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in became more active in heritage management. As a result, the Dawson City Museum’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples evolved during the 21st century.
- Reliance on project funding in the 1990s encouraged a growth model despite a lack of support for ongoing operations, contributing to financial difficulties in the 21st century.
- Community activities
- Several people who had worked on contracts for the Museum from the 1970s or 1980s into the 1990s left Dawson City.
- There were new organizations established in Dawson City, redirecting some volunteer labor.
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 interviews with two directors, a curator, and student employee who worked in the period examined as well as a board member and volunteer.
Two RAs – Christine Leroux and Katherine Ahlf – provided valuable feedback on the paper.
As discussed in “A Community Hub,” the 1990s was a decade of increased funding for the Dawson City Museum related to territorially significant centennials (e.g., the Klondike Gold Rush) and a variety of employment programs. As an active institution and major employer with an engaging and well-liked Director, the Dawson City Museum became a community hub. However, the role was unsustainable.
The 21st century has involved significant changes for the Museum. On the one hand, the period starts with an expansion and ends with new permanent exhibitions, demonstrating growth as a professional institution. On the other, financial and staffing challenges once again began to define work, contributing to inconsistencies in both the Museum’s operations and relationship building within the community. As a result, the Dawson City Museum became an institution struggling, but consistently working toward connecting with its community.
Financial difficulties re-emerged for the Museum in the early 2000s when they failed to receive a grant partway through a project. As a result, the Director / Curator was laid off for 20 weeks and the Museum was forced to borrow money through a personal line of credit on at least two occasions (DCM AGM June 6, 2002; See documents available in O&M correspondence, 29b, Dawson City Museum Archives). As the Director from the period described:
We didn’t get the grant, and that put us in a very tight operating funding position. We ran out of money, and that’s why I had to lay myself off, so I could keep at least one other staff member full-time in the building over the winter.Interview 3
Despite the financial challenges, Museum staff at the time ensured the Museum continued to grow and develop. They applied to designate the Old Territorial Administration Building a national historic site and the bid was successful. They also opened a new storage facility and the Lind Gallery focused on pre-Gold Rush history (DCM Newsletter vol. 18 no. 2). Further, the Museum Director spearheaded an advocacy campaign for increased operational funding starting in 2002 (See documents available in O&M Correspondence, Box 29b, Dawson City Museum Archives). Importantly, the Dawson City business community wrote letters in support of the Museum’s ask, showing ongoing community support for the institution in a time of crisis (See “Community Mobilized“).
Responding to calls from the DCM and a consultation for a Museums Strategy, the territorial government eventually increased operational support to community museums, which shifted funding from project grants, and implemented multi-year agreements. Articulating a need for the change, the Director who worked at the Museum in 2001-2002 noted,
There’s a need for multi-year funding… that’s why I had to lay myself off. I couldn’t plan for a year because I had to rely on incoming project grant money, and if I didn’t get that grant money, we couldn’t operate.Interview 3
The operational funding increase and multi-year agreements helped provide the consistency the Dawson City Museum needed to fund staff from year to year, addressing the perennial question of how the Director would get paid.
Despite having the funding for a director position from 2003 onward, the Museum continued to shift away from its role as a community hub. In 2007, the Director wrote:
DCM is recognized as one of the most important heritage attractions in the community yet we have few volunteers, locals rarely attend our special events and financial support is nil.Pike 2007
Notably, the Museum’s role as a community hub in the 1990s intersected with its role as a major employer (see “A Community Hub”). There was a core group of staff who worked at the Museum on contracts from the 1970s, providing consistency. These individuals left Dawson City and/or found permanent positions elsewhere at the end of the 1990s or beginning of the 2000s, which coincided with the decline in project and employments grants the Museum had used to fund their work.
The loss of these key individuals highlighted the need for permanent staff to provide consistency and ongoing labour at the Museum. As articulated in a Canadian Conservation Institute report on the Dawson City Museum’s performance:
lt is imperative that key staff be hired on full time status … without key, full time staff, the Museum’s operational profile will fall to levels which will question its ability to continue to operate as a museum.p. 22 qtd in DCM Director Curator Report June 19 2002
Despite the recommendation and the aforementioned increase in operational funding, there has been insufficient funding for key staff, leading to inconsistencies in operation. For example, the Museum experienced significant backlogs in registration with the departure of the collection manager in the early 2000s (DCM Report to Board for June 19 to July 22 2003). While there has been a Curator engaged in collection management since 2014, the 2000s and early 2010s involved a series of projects to address a backlog followed by a period without staff dedicated to the collection, leading to more backlogs (See “Dawson City Museum, 2000s” and “Dawson City Museum, 2010s”).
The inconsistencies are due to different staffing priorities as directors utilize their limited budget and project grant availability. Within this period, the Museum has typically had one year-round, full-time position in addition to the Director with some attempts to hire a third employee. However, the operating budget cannot accommodate a third permanent and full-time employee over the long term. As a former Director noted:
When I took over in 2015, the Museum had three permanent, year-round, full-time staff. That number is – it was then and is today – frankly more than the Museum can comfortably afford.Interview 1
The Director quoted then prioritized the curator position over an archivist position when he had to let someone go. The previous Director had briefly prioritized programming with the creation of a Program Co-Ordinator position in 2008, which led to more activities focused on local audiences such “A Night at the Museum” and other programs for school children (DCM Annual Report 2008). These school programs were necessarily suspended when the program manager left (DCM Annual Report 2011-12). The Director then prioritized curation due to a planned exhibition renewal project. The Curator, who started in 2014, had to manage the aforementioned backlog of donated artifacts because collection management had not been prioritized with a Program Co-ordinator as the second full-time position. She described the situation as follows:
When I first arrived, there was a backlog of donations that hadn’t been processed… [Also] a lot of items within our database hadn’t been touched in a while and by that, I mean – had not been seen. So, we did not know if it existed because we [could not] find it.Interview 6
The changing staff thereby presented a challenge to the growth and development of the Museum with inconsistencies in the museum functions accomplished.
In addition to prioritizing different staff positions over time, the Directors have taken different approaches to engaging with the local community. Starting in the early 2010s, one director began an events approach, aiming to increase the Museum’s presence by hosting activities for the local community. For example, they began an annual comedy show and movie nights for locals. Despite providing some connection to the local community, these events and activities cost the Museum money and had limited (or no) connection to Klondike heritage. As such, when the Director changed in 2015, he initiated a process of “finding the floor.” As he explained:
The phrase I use with the curator, and its sort of a guiding philosophy of mine, is finding the floor. When I started in 2015, one of my first tasks was to pull off a Comedy Festival that was partly, substantially funded by Lotteries Yukon that ended up costing $50,000. It was not very successful. It was a great event… and a lot of people liked it a lot, but the $50,000 event only raised, including Yukon Government funding, $40,000. So, the museum literally paid $10,000 to treat paying clients to a comedy show. And if we want to spend ten grand out of our pocket to show people a good time, I think we can do better than that.Interview 1
Rather than focus on creating events for the community to increase the Museum’s presence, the new Director redirected efforts toward increasing the Museum’s physical presence at existing community events and fostering positive relationships with other groups. As a former board member noted:
And the Museum has tried to just be partnering with other groups too I notice. They may be just sitting as part of another group or being in the parade or something like that. Those are just small things, but they give the Museum a presence.Interview 15
For example, they expanded participation in activities hosted by others within the community, such as the Walk for Truth and Reconciliation (DCM 2018 Annual Report). Museum Staff also began to more actively consult and develop a relationship with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Consultation on the Museum’s Exhibit Renewal Project, which started in 2014, provides a key example of the shift from inviting community to events to actively engaging in relationship building with community. As the Executive Director explained:
When I took over in 2015, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had not been approached about our plans. The Museum was planning this huge major renewal. Our curator had started in 2014 … and so halfway through the three-year exhibit development process, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had not been approached.
The curator and I spent too much time handwringing about that. How could we have gotten this far, and no one’s been contacted? How can we go to them now, at this stage? Eventually we got over ourselves and did and it went really well. But as an example of a shift in priorities? There we go. Fewer comedy festivals, more engaging with important stakeholders.Interview 1
The Curator similarly describes a more community-oriented approach to the Museum’s work post 2015:
We want to work in the community… [and] have community relationships. I think it’s changed a lot. Our past director, maybe, wasn’t as open to making those connections. I would say, [the current Director] definitely is.Interview 6
The Curator’s reflection highlights the Director’s role in fostering these relationships. The Director from 2007 to 2015 was not as friendly and open to relationship building as the Director who took over in 2015. As an Interview Participant remarked:
We felt somewhat disrespected and lost a little bit of interest in the Museum. We’ve been more than happy with having [the Director and Curator from 2015] working there now because they are just amazing.Interview 5
In short, staff is key to Museum operations and shape what the museum is able to accomplish. After a decade of growth and increased community engagement with the Museum, the 21st saw the DCM struggle to connect with the local community. The difficulties relate to financial challenges and staffing changes, which led to inconsistencies in the Museum’s operations. However, a shift from an events approach to a more community focused orientation has begun to redress the issue. The Museum staff hope to continue engaging with the community, using their new exhibitions as a starting point.
As noted above, the Museum began work on a major exhibit Renewal Project in 2014, using funding from the Community Development Fund (DCM 2016 Annual Report) and the government of Canada. The exhibits opened in 2021 and represent a significant change for the institution. As explained by the Executive Director at the time:
We wanted the Museum to tell a more focused story… The thesis of the new exhibitions is the people of the Klondike persevere and prosper through adaptation and change.
And we wanted it to be more inclusive… We knew that in the new exhibits, we wanted the exhibit to better reflect the continuity… the primacy, the priority, and the centrality of the Indigenous Peoples of the Klondike – the Gwich’in and Hän. That was a distinctly important piece of a new inclusive exhibit that we wanted to create.Interview 1
Similarly, the Curator discussed the new exhibitions as a shift in the Museum’s activities to better reflect and respond to the community. She noted:
With the new exhibits going up, we definitely are making a more concerted effort to be more reflective, and maybe responsive, to our community…
When I think about the current exhibitions, I think, what we’d really wanted them to be is reflective of our community. That sounds really general, and not specific. The voice that speaks in it, we wanted to be a voice of the Klondike.Interview 6
I visited the Museum in November 2021 after the exhibitions opened and, as such, their re-opening is the chronological end to the research. The exhibitions have clearly provided a more inclusive foundation for the Museum’s operations, shifting the focus from Gold Rush history to the community itself. However, at the time, it was still unclear what the Museum’s plans were moving forward.
In the 21st century, we continue to see the influence of established policies, including student employment programs, the use of the Old Territorial Administration Building, partnerships with federal and other actors, and the territorial support program targeting museums.
Although there is some continuity, there were changes in how programs operate with a decreased emphasis on supporting museums. For example, in “A Community Hub,” we discussed the $10,000 Municipal grant received to subsidize student employment at the Museum. However, without support from the anniversary funding the territory provided in the 1990s, the municipality was unable to sustain funding to the Dawson City Museum. Other notable challenges include barriers or reductions to student employment, the development of a territorial museum strategy, some decline in the Museum’s relationships with Parks Canada, and a reduction in services from the territorial advisory service.
As seen since the 1970s, the Dawson City Museum used short term grants for staffing. However, in the past, there were a variety of programs accessed, such as those connected to unemployment. In the 21st century, the Museum has relied primarily on student and/or youth positions. In particular, the Museum accessed the Human Resources Development Canada’s (HRDC) Summer Career Placement Programme, Canada Summer Jobs, and Young Canada Works (YCW) students through the Canadian Heritage Foundation, the Canadian Library Association, the Canadian Museums Association, and the Canadian Council of Archives.
These programs are incredibly significant to the Museum’s operation because of their influence on the human resource capacity of the institution. As a Curator explained:
When I have someone in the archives, especially in the summer because of the amount of research we get from visitors, let alone, maybe local requests, to have someone to be able to respond, and help our visitors is very important. If [the Director] and I have to do that, it really takes away from something else, particularly, when we talk about being involved in community activities and events. So, the Truth and Reconciliation, we were able to do that because there was someone in the library helping our everyday visitors with their research. The YCW funding is very important in that sense.Interview 6
Similarly, a student employee from the period described the summer program:
Because of the Young Canada Works granting when I was there, they had a lot of historical Interpreters available, and that meant that they had quite a robust programming schedule that did run on repeat during the day.Interview 13
Notably, the student and youth programs provided fewer work hours in the 21st century than the 1990s. For example, during the 1990s, the Dawson City Museum received funding for five students for eleven weeks from one program. However, in 2000, the Museum received funding for five students for only ten weeks from that program (Thistle 2000). Then, in 2003, there were additional cuts to the funded summer student employees from all sources, reducing the number of positions, number of hours and number of weeks funded (DCM Newsletter vol. 19 no. 1). The reduced hours and weeks then contributed to students leaving partway through the summer, further undermining the program’s effectiveness (Pike 2003).
In addition to declines in funding amounts, the Museum has experienced significant difficulties hiring summer staff due to fewer applicants and applicants turning down interviews (DCM ED Report May 16, 2017). As a former Executive Director described:
There used to be a larger force of transient summer staff and that transient summer labor force has shrunk. It has caused recruitment and retention problems at a number of businesses in Dawson. The Museum among them. As it’s become more difficult to recruit and fill our summer staffing positions, the Museum responded chiefly by cutting the positions, by managing to do more with fewer students.Interview 1
According to the Executive Director quoted the shrinking number of students relates to the loss of a tent city, growing awareness of the housing shortage in Dawson City, and growing competition for wages as other provinces increase their minimums. Discussing the housing shortage, a former YCW student noted:
There [were] definitely a lot of housing shortages, and we knew coming in that it could be a real challenge… I used to guide canoe trips, so I had come well prepared for this, and me and my partner actually just slept in a tent the whole summer. We were in west Dawson in a campground that had no running water, and that was fine for us, but definitely not for most people.Interview 13
Additional issues with student employment funding program shifted how the Museum interacted with audiences. In 2007, the Museum received late notice for student employees. So, students stopped providing guided tours of the exhibitions and developed a self-guided booklet instead. The students also developed new performances, which became key summer activities. They conceived and wrote the Miner’s Meeting where an audience member was accused of something, and the audience voted on their guilt (DCM Final Report Summer 2007). By 2011, the students were providing three short skits for audiences and giving a pre-written guided tour of the train shelter, which was also developed by a summer student (Interview 1).
In short, employment programs continue to be important and shape what the Museum can accomplish. The Museum now manages with far fewer students, changing what can be offered during the summer and reducing its role as a community hub for the transient summer population. While only addressed briefly herein, student / youth employment programs are discussed in more detail in other posts (see for example: Reduced Student Positions or Students and Employment).
There continued to be significant partnerships with government actors. For example, Parks Canada provided the Museum with space for staff housing, addressing a significant problem in the Museum’s use of student employment programs – that is, the aforementioned challenge of finding them places to live (DCM ED report September 15, 2015). We also see new partnerships with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. For example, the Museum partnered with Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Parks Canada on a school program titled “Secret Life of Artifacts,” which aimed to help students develop a better understanding of the role of heritage organizations (DCM Newsletter vol. 20 no. 1).
Relationships with both the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Parks Canada change during this period. Notably, the Museum has focused on strengthening its relationship with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, but its relationship with Parks Canada became more tenuous as the federal government implemented cuts to its Dawson City program. These cuts undermined the presence of a robust heritage community that the Museum had relied on and participated in since the late 1970s. Both relationships will be discussed in more detail in their own thematic papers.
Territorial Museums Policy and Programs
Although the territorial government has not re-articulated a policy for community museums, they have implemented significant changes in the 21st century. Most notably, they developed a Museum Strategy and redefined the granting programs. Some of these changes, such as a shift from project to operational funding, involved consultations and official announcements. Other changes, such as the elimination of a Museum Advisor position, involved shifts in practice that are not reflected in the articulated museums policy or strategy. From the Dawson City Museum’s perspective, these changes have had both positive and negative effects.
Part one: A shift from project funding to operational funding
In 2000, the Minister for Tourism articulated an intent to develop a Museum Strategy based on consultation (Source). The Territory hired consultants who released a discussion paper (DCM Newsletter vol. 17 no. 3) then a draft Museum Strategy Report in 2002 – Strategy for Maintaining Yukon’s Museums (see documents available in Strategy for Yukon museums, Box 29a, Dawson City Museum Archives). Yukon formed an advisory committee to draft a strategy from the Report (YHMA 2002, Summer), demonstrating a commitment to consultation.
The Strategy outlined desired results and guiding principles for the territory’s approach to supporting museums. Most importantly, it explicitly expanded museums’ definition to include First Nations Cultural Centers, which began to receive funding under the museum granting program. The document also called for increased funding for community museums and greater flexibility in that funding.
At the time, museums received money through both an operational grant and project grants, but the number of programs for projects was relatively high. As a result, a large percentage of the funding available was tied to new activities and expansion rather than ongoing operations like costs for permanent staff. For example, in 2002-2003, the Dawson City Museum received seven grants from Yukon’s Heritage Branch. Six of those grants were tied to projects, including gift shop development and a walking tour booklet. Although the operational grant was only 23,500, the Museum received an additional 85,000 for the projects As an Executive Director noted:
The problem with the territorial government when I got there was – there was way too much project money because all museum people were doing was being grant jockeys.Interview 3
In addition to being more limited than project funding, the operational grant application was annual and not part of a multi-year agreement. As a former Director noted,
There’s a need for multi-year funding. We need to understand exactly how much operational funding [there is] – that’s why I had to lay myself off. I couldn’t plan for a year because I had to rely on incoming project grant money, and if I didn’t get that grant money, we couldn’t operate.Interview 3
Moreover, the grant program involved a significant administrative burden due to intersecting government policies. In particular, in 2001, the Finance Administration Act led to a new accountability regime for the Community Museum Operations and Maintenance program, causing delays in receiving funding (See documents available in O&M correspondence, 29b, Dawson City Museum Archives). These accountability measures created additional labour for those receiving the funding. As a former Director explained:
I ended up standing at my xerox machine photocopying my check stubs for the territorial government. It was that kind of thing.Interview 3
While not an explicit museum policy, the Finance Administration Act shaped museum policy in practice. It contributed to complaints about the funding program’s administrative burden and inflexibility for a relatively small amount of funding.
Yukon Government responded to the call for increased flexibility and long-term stability in funding with an increase in the operating grant and multi-year funding agreements (Taylor 2003). The overall increase to the Dawson City Museum was moderate because there was a corresponding decrease in the project funding. For example, in 2004-2005, the Museum received an 80,000 operating grant and 37,500 in project funding from the Heritage Branch, which is only a 9,000 increase from 2002-2003. However, the change was important because, as discussed above, it provided sustained funding for a director position at the Museum and decreased the human resource cost for the Museum when applying for grants.
Part two: A growth in funding and flexibility
After the release of the Strategy the government’s museum support program continued to evolve in practice. In 2006, the Minister of Tourism and Culture announced 200,000 in new funding to museums (DCM Newsletter vol. 22 no. 2), which led to operational grant increases endorsed by a Museums Advisory Committee. The Dawson City Museum remained in the highest category with a 20,000 increase for a total operating grant of 100,000. Yukon also increased the flexibility of its project grants, consolidating programs for exhibits, conservation and security, as well as artifact inventory and cataloguing into one special project grant category.
Notably, increases in operational funding and greater flexibility in the programs targeting museums did not completely address the issue of how to pay staff. The use of the Heritage Branch’s project grant – the Special Projects and Capital Assistance Program (SPCAP) – is shaped by the availability of staff to supervise and implement projects. As a former Director explained:
It’s also only possible for our staff to oversee so many SPCAP projects. If we wanted to use two programs to purchase specialized equipment, that wouldn’t take a lot in the way of management resources. But some projects that we’ve undertaken (like large-scale inventories or donor records reconciliations) in the past couple of years, you can only do one of those at a time.
We don’t have the personnel to do it… Our ability to take advantage of a more generous special project grant program, like SPCAP, is limited by the time that our permanent staff have to manage the project.Interview 1
Though promoted as flexible, like many project grants the SPCAP funds could not be used to pay permanent staff salaries. As explained in an interview:
I kept being told that SPCAP funds couldn’t be used to pay staff wages. And I was like – where in the program guidelines does it say that? And it doesn’t. But I kept being told this.Interview 1
The Museum was told to use contractors instead, which is expensive. Especially in a rural community in the Yukon.
Moreover, the reliance on project funding contributes to the inconsistency in museum operations due to uncertainty. As one director wrote:
Planning from one year to the next is difficult as we never know if the funds are going to come through.Pike 2007
As such, changes in the granting program have been positive. However, the continued need to justify projects for part of the annual funding remains a hurdle for the institution.
Part three: Standardization?
The program came under review again in the 2010s, starting with a request in 2013 from a Museums Roundtable – that is, a gathering of Yukon community museums – for standards. The request prompted the release of the Funding Allocation for Yukon Museums and First Nation Cultural/Heritage Centres Options Paper (Cole 2013). The paper presented three possible options to improve the existing program – a modified status quo, investment based on standards/merit, or a redistribution of existing funds.
The government considered a combination of the modified status quo and investment based on standards. While the modified status quo recommended increasing funding to both the DCM and MacBride Museum, in 2015, the Territory made a separate higher tier for the MacBride Museum (DCM 2016 Annual Report). They also (Cambio 2015):
- considered a new hybrid funding model that would tie some funding to standards.
- committed to a two staged increase to operational funding of 10% a year for two years.
- proposed a 10% increase in the third year dependent on standards adherence and taken from the Special Projects Capital Assistance Program funding.
Due to concerns from the First Nations’ Cultural Centres, the hybrid model for funding was reassessed during the 2016 Roundtable. As a result, the third-year funding increase was no longer tied to meeting standards (Cambio 2016).
It is important to note, the standards were not implemented in large part due to the inclusion of the First Nation Cultural Centers in the grant program in the early 2000s. Their inclusion reflected the Umbrella Final Agreement Chapter 13, which noted Yukon First Nations would be provided with an equitable division of program resources for heritage. The agreement does not tie these resources to standards achievement. As a former Director described:
When the staff at Tourism and Culture started talking about tying to standards compliance, there were First Nations who reject that that premise. Their funding was tied to their umbrella final agreement, and it was not acceptable for staff at Tourism and Culture to decide that it was also going to be tied to standards that they decide to impose on their clients. Since then, it’s kind of been dead in the water.Interview 1
Part four: Museum Advisory Service
As previously discussed, Yukon Government’s museum program includes an advisory service. The availability of advice and assistance through the museum advisory program changed both without few articulated rationales. Notably, the Museum Advisor became increasingly unavailable to museums in the early 2000s. Illustrating the change in a 2001 report to the board, the Director wrote:
We are still waiting to hear about the success of the exhibit grant and the security grant. Just before the long weekend, I called [Museum Advisor] about this and he said we would know by early the following week. As is becoming common, I didn’t hear anything. So, I followed up with another call and he gave me the same promises, but nothing has been received yet. I will continue to pester him until we know.DCM Report to Board for July 23 to August 26 2001
The Museum Advisor position was eventually eliminated. While there continues to be a conservator, the Museum’s use of the conservator has also declined. More recently, the Curator described the work of the territorial conservator:
We do have links with the territorial Conservator, but her tasks are more limited in nature. Obviously, she doesn’t have the resources, in the sense of time, to address a lot of our problems.Interview 6
The conservator became less available due to an increase in the number of organizations seeking help and the territorial agencies (see Providing Help or Being Helpful?). Moreover, the Museums and Heritage Unit merged, resulting in challenges as staff had limited time to do everything (Hemmera 2019).
In short, the basic tenants of the territory’s museum support program – that is, operational and project grants – have remained. However, the program underwent several important changes that influenced the Dawson City Museum’s development in the 21st century. There was a shift towards more flexibility in funding as project funding was reallocated to operational funding, leading to increases and multiyear agreements. The project grants were consolidated into one purportedly more flexible project grant, which continues to have significant limitations in how it can be used to pay staff. Finally, there was an effort to implement standards tied to funding, but the effort was thwarted by the First Nations Cultural Centers, which were added to the support program following their inclusion in the museum support program. Finally, the advisory service has become less useful for the Museum.
Old Territorial Administration Building
There are a number of factors related to the OTAB that significantly influenced the Museum’s work during this period. One example is the pipes for the fire suppressant system, which burst in 2012 and caused damage to the collection. The landlord – that is, the territorial government – still has not replaced the system a decade later placing the collection and the building itself at risk. Please see “Territorial Interest and Investment” for more information.
The DCM has experienced some challenges to engaging with the local community since its financial difficulties in the early 2000s. As outlined above, different directors have taken different approaches to addressing the issue. Attempts have included holding and participating in events as discussed above, but also some more creative solutions, such as making mannequins of local residents in order to use in the exhibitions (Source). The Museum continued to have some temporary exhibitions, which at times invited community participation. However, these efforts to foster community relationships have had varying success. The lack of money for adequate staff and reduced advisory services from the territory provide a partial explanation for the shift from being a community hub in the 1990s to struggling to connect with the community in the 21st century. Two changes in the community add to the explain the explanation – that is, changes in what people and organizations are part of the community.
People in Dawson
Within “Territorial Interest and Investment,” we discussed museum staff as both staff and community members. Their dual membership meant the museum was well integrated in the community. In the 1990s, there were several contract staff who had worked at the Museum and had been part of the community since the 1970s or 1980s. The Director for most of the 1990s was also described in several interviews as an active member of the community. However, in the 21st century, the distinction between museum staff and community member became more distinct.
Due in part to reduced funding, the Museum stopped being a major employer in the region. The individuals hired on contracts since the 1970s and 1980s left Dawson, becoming less available. Importantly, these people often filled out or helped develop grant application to fund their own jobs. Further, they helped the director at the time with their institutional knowledge. As Interview Participants described:
At the time as well, there was this amazing group of people who had been involved with the Museum for quite a long time… So, there was this corporate knowledge and energy that was there as well. Just because of happenstance, most of those people ended up getting Yukon government jobs and moving to Whitehorse kind of at the same time.Interview 10
They were experienced people who we could just call them up, and they could come in the next day and sit down and talk about what needed to be done, and we could contract them to work. We could supply them work in the winter.Interview 3
These people had been important to both consistency and ongoing relationships with community members. Without their ongoing contribution to institutional knowledge, the Museum’s operations became more inconsistent. Further, they had been community members. New employees were less established within the community and did not have the same relationships.
Demonstrating the importance of consistency in staffing to community relationships, the shift from an events approach to a focus on fostering relationships discussed has only been possible due to consistency in the two full-time, year-round staff positions from 2015 to 2021. The curator described:
With [the Director], and I … we have the benefit of our institutional memory, which … was lacking because of the transience of other staff. Maybe the director was here quite a bit, but every year everything was being re-learned and re-taught. Now we’ve learned and we’ve hopefully internalized what we learned. [We] can continue to grow from that, take in other people’s opinions, follow trends locally, or even nationally, and kind of adapt our practice to it. In terms of the mentality that we want to work in the community, that we have community relationships.Interview 6
As the Curator’s quote suggests, long term stability in staffing seems to be central to the Museum’s engagement with the local community, helping to explain the successes seen in the 1990s and the struggle to connect with the community in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
In short, the Museum lost consistency, knowledge, and relationships with the departure of community members from Dawson City who had worked for the Museum on contracts. Further contributing to a change, the heritage community in Dawson became less robust when Parks Canada experienced cuts in 2012. The Museum had relied on this community for knowledge and expertise and their departure undermined the Museum’s ability to access expertise through relationships with community members. Who is in the community has an influence on how the Museum does and can operate. Notably for the Museum’s future, the Executive Director from 2015 – 2022 recently left, but stayed in the community. It is unclear what the effect of this change will be.
Organizations in Dawson
The establishment of new organizations in Dawson City had both positive and negative effects on the Museum. Most notably, the Dawson City Arts Society (DCAS) formed in 1998. They obtained and renovated historic building, opening the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture (KIAC) and launching its first show in 2000 (Klondike Institute of Art & Culture 2021). KIAC became home to the ODD Gallery, Dawson City International Short Film Festival, Yukon Riverside Arts Festival, and the Youth Art Enrichment Program.
On the one hand, the new organization is a valuable partner for the Museum. For example, in 2006 the Museum partnered with KIAC and Musicfest on an application from the federal Cultural Investment Fund to redesign their websites. Moreover, the organization is important to Dawson City, providing a home for the artistic community. As an Executive Director observed:
Ever since the year 2000, when the Dawson Arts Society opened the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, I think there’s been less and less collaboration with artists in Dawson. The artists in Dawson flock to, they crystallized around, are more involved with, and active in the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture unsurprisingly.Interview 1
Rather than hosting regular art exhibitions in the courthouse, the Museum began supporting and participating in events. For example, the Klondike Institute of Arts & Culture (KIAC) began the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival in 2000 with the Museum participating as a stop. As a result, human resources are diverted from the Museum. As a former employee noted:
There were a lot of people who were also involved with the Arts Community. A lot of the people who worked very hard to establish the Dawson City Art Society and the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture had been either employees or on the board of the Museum and worked very hard in that capacity.Interview 10
In short, the Museum relied on the community for some labour and activities. With the development of the Dawson Arts Society, the attention of individuals who previously organized around the Museum to host temporary exhibitions and foster artistic creation was diverted toward an organization more focused on their needs. The Dawson City Museum gained a valuable community partner but also lost some community participation and attention.
Due to the availability of funding for projects and the devotion of staff, the Dawson City Museum continued to grow and develop in the 21st century. The period starts with the opening of a new storage space and gallery. It ends with the opening of new permanent exhibitions. However, the period has also involved significant challenges and the Museum is no longer the community hub it once was. There are a variety of intersecting explanations for the change, including:
- The loss of a director who was well liked and integrated in the community. Then, inconsistencies in operations due to the changing priorities of subsequent directors.
- The loss of contract workers who had provided consistency in operations since the 1970s and had helped with applications for funding to support their work.
- The ongoing need to access project funding to sustain even basic museum activities like collections management. The project funding had encouraged a growth in operations despite insufficient operational support.
- The development of new organizations in Dawson City, which may have redirected labour and attention from the Museum.
- Insufficient operational funding to sustain staffing levels.
- A decline in funding sources, such as the funding available for anniversary celebrations that had helped the municipality subsidize employment at the institution. There were also changes in the availability or accessibility of particular employment programs, contributing to a reliance on student / youth labour, which increases human resources during the tourism season.
- Reductions in advisory services and expertise available to the Museum from both the territorial government and Parks Canada.
Notably, the current museum team has been praised for the work to rebuild and foster relationships with the community. Further, a decline in its role as a community hub has not negated the institution’s importance within the community. The Dawson City Museum continues to be recognized as an important heritage site and tourist attraction.
What do you think? Are there issues I should be paying more attention to? Do my explanations for change make sense?
Cambio. 2013, October. Yukon Museums & Cultural Centers: Annual Roundtable Workshop.
Cambio. 2015, October. Yukon Museums & Cultural Centres Roundtable.
Cambio. 2016, November. Yukon Museums & Cultural Centres Roundtable.
Catherine C. Cole & Associates. 2014. Funding Allocation for Yukon Museums and First Nation Cultural/Heritage Centres Options Paper. Cultural Services, Department of Tourism and Culture, Yukon Government.
Davidson, Dan. 2012, May 30. “Council Reacts to the Cuts at Parks. The Klondike Sun. P3. http://klondikesun.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Sun12-5-30online.pdf
DCM – internal documents from the Dawson City Museum
Glynn-Morris, John. 2017, October. Museums and Cultural Centres: Dawson Roundtable.
Hemmera. 2019, November. Museums and Cultural Centres 2019 Roundtable Report.
Klondike Institute of Art & Culture. 2021. “About.” https://kiac.ca/about/
Pike, Julia. 2003, August. Letter to the Museum Advisor. Correspondence. Box 39a. Dawson City Museum Archives.
Pike, Julia. 2007. Report.
Thistle, Paul. 2000, July. Letter to the Minister of Human Resources and Development Canada. Correspondence Director. Box 27b. Dawson City Museum Archives.
Thistle, Paul. 2001, September. Letter to the territorial conservator. O&M Correspondence. Box 29b. Dawson City Museum Archives.
Thistle, Paul. 2001, October. Letter to the Deputy Minister of Tourism. Lind Gallery Phase III. Box 28a. Dawson City Museum Archives.
YHMA. 2002, Summer. “Museum Strategy Working Group.” Yukon Historical & Museums Association Newsletter. 5