Why a Museum?: The Dawson City Museum’s Role (Part one)

The Dawson City Museum project asks – How has the Dawson City Museum (DCM) 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.  

Providing the second thematic consideration of the data, this working paper focuses on the question – what is the role of the DCM over time? The question speaks directly to the main research question because the Museum’s role is shaped and shapes government policy. It is also defined through community action and its relationship to the community.  

To answer the question, I outline six overlapping and intersecting roles for the DCM – tourist asset, heritage resource, employer, identity builder, community hub, and community resource. The discussion considers these roles in relation to past research, factors other than policy and community, their interconnectivity, and their relative importance to the Museum’s relationship to community. I conclude that while the DCM has had many roles related to policy attachment and addressing perceived community needs, it is in a period of transition and (re)definition with a focus on its potential as a community resource. There are several important questions that the Museum may want to consider as it focuses on the future. 

Roles for the DCM

Museums are versatile institutions that are mobilized and legitimized in a variety of ways through government policies and programs. They are also used differently depending on their communities’ needs and relationship to the institution. Like many community museums, the Dawson City Museum does not have one singular role. Instead, different roles become evident when examining its relationship to policy and community from the 1950s to 2021.    The most prominent roles articulated include tourist asset, heritage resource, employer, identity builder, community hub, and community resource.

While these roles are in many ways intersecting and overlapping, they were most popular at specific periods of time due to their relationship to specific government policies or community actions. Most notably, community members working to develop tourism in the region established the DCM as a tourist asset in the 1950s, which also reflects the Museum’s relationship to emerging territorial policy in the 1960s and 1970s. As policies specific to community museums emerged federally in the 1970s and territorially in the 1980s, the DCM developed and established itself as a heritage resource engaged in collections care.

The heritage resource role coincided with an increase in the size of Dawson City’s heritage community due to an influx in young workers with an interest in the region’s history, such as Parks Canada employees. Taking advantage of the available labour and funding opportunities for seasonal employment, the DCM established itself as a key employer. At the peak of its role as a year round employer, the Museum also received an influx of funding and attention related to its role in identity building, which is in some ways an important component of its recent exhibit renewal despite a lack of focus on this objective in support programs. While the exhibition renewal (2014-2021) involved significant project-based funding, the number of individual project related grants needed to support the Museum’s work has decline and contributed to a focus on fewer (though in some ways larger) projects that facilitate connections within the community.

The Museum’s connection to community also seemed to decrease with a decline in the number of year round employees. At the turn of the century, the departure of key individuals from the area and a shift in the available programs towards summer rather than winter unemployment led to a significant decline in the employment role. Attempting to both raise funds and increase its profile within the community, the DCM began focusing on events that would bring the community together and, at times, into Museum spaces but these events did not address the institution’s heritage related mission. As a result, a change in leadership led to a change in direction to focus on the relationship to and in community rather than than Museum’s role as host to community. Importantly, the attempt to (re)focus on becoming a community resource broadly is not a new role for the Museum and is an idea that in some ways encompasses the other roles mentioned, which have responded to community need at specific points of time. 

Upcoming Posts

Since this working paper is rather long, I am going to post in multiple parts. On Friday, I will post on the Museum’s role as a Tourist Asset. Next week, there will be a post on the Museum’s role as a heritage resource and another on its role as an employer. As the content is posted, I will add an index here:

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