Why a Museum?: Tourist Attraction (Part two)

This post continues to consider the Dawson City Museum’s Role over time, focusing on its creation and continued use as a tourist attraction.

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

Tourist Attraction

The Dawson City Museum’s earliest role was to be a site for tourists. In the 1950s, community members were working to develop and expand a tourism industry, which became central to the local and territorial economy. Then, the DCM benefited from the development of government policy to encourage tourism. As a result, the Museum’s role as a site for tourists is in some ways the most firmly established. 

In the 1950s, the local community was experiencing economic hardship because Yukon’s capital moved from Dawson City to Whitehorse and large-scale mining was declining. At the same time, there was increased public interest in the north and a romanticized version of the Klondike Gold Rush. Community members organized to capitalize on this interest, forming the Klondike Tourism Bureau (now the Klondike Visitors Association or KVA). The KVA created the Dawson City Museum as a tourist attraction (To learn more about this period see Dawson City’s Community Attic). 

The DCM became a separate incorporated non-profit due to the availability of a federal program for museums in the Yukon. As a separate entity, the Museum could cash a check for $500 from the federal government and, when the federal funding ceased, receive a territorial grant as a tourist site. Even though the Museum was officially its own entity, people were still members of both the KVA and Museum, which further emphasizes the DCM’s origins as a tourist attraction in the community. Lotz (1964, 128) wrote:

Two organizations in the city cater to tourists – The Klondike Visitors Association, which ran a campground in 1963, has put signs on the old buildings, and runs the Palace Grand shows, and the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society, which focuses its attention on building up and running the museum in the old Administration Building. Some individuals in Dawson are members of both organizations…

While less pronounced than it was in the 1960s, there have continued to be people with dual membership with the Museum and more explicitly tourist organizations. For example, at the time of the on-site research for the DCM Project, the Museum’s Executive Director was a member of the KVA’s board, showing ongoing dual membership between the Museum and the more explicitly tourist focused KVA. 

Community members have also continued defining the Museum as an attraction. For example, in 2002, the DCM experienced a funding crisis and reached out to the local community, asking businesses to write letters to government advocating for more support. These letters emphasized the Museum position as a tourist attraction as one of their roles (see Box 29b in the DCM Corporate archives or the post Archival Research: Community Mobilized). For example, Bombay Peggy’s wrote, “As a business involved in tourism, we view the Dawson City Museum as a key attraction…” The Dawson City Chamber of Commerce wrote, “The Dawson Museum is recognized as one of the primary heritage attractions in the Yukon.”

The Dawson City Museum’s role as a primary attraction is reflected in their front facing activities from their inception to today. Like many community museums in what we now call Canada, the DCM has more regular opening hours and offers more programming in the summer when the number of tourists in Dawson City increases. To that end, the Museum generally has more staffing during the summer months and, prior to 1975, the summer was the only time the DCM had paid staff.

The number of summer staff and the breadth of their activities increased in the 1990s following a rise in summer student employment programs. These programs, including the now well-known Young Canada Works in Heritage, functionally (re)enforced an orientation of activities and staff time toward tourism simply because museums can provide more active programming with increased staff (Interviews). That being said, the number of students the Museum could hire decreased in the 21st century due to issues with the funding programs available, a lack of supervisory capacity, and barriers to hiring, such as a lack of available housing (For example, see Reduced Student Positions). 

Student employment programs are not the only government policies that have contributed to the orientation toward tourism. There are also strong connections between tourism and Yukon’s Museum Policy, developed in the 1980s. Policy discussion began after the release of the Kyte Report, which states:

Few Canadian Community Museums are as closely tied to the Tourist Industry as those located in Yukon. With visitors to the area outnumbering residents by, at least, ten to one, museum activities are chiefly tourist motivated, frequently at the expense of other museum responsibilities. Of the nearly 300,000 visitors entering Yukon annually it can be reliably assessed that up to 25% spend some time in one or more of the community museums during their travels. Though accurate attendance figures are generally unavailable there is supporting evidence that Whitehorse, Burwash, and Dawson are the principal points of museum contact in the Territory. During 1979 an aggregate total in excess of 50,000 visitors is estimated to have entered these three institutions. 

Kyte 1980, 4

Reflecting this connection to tourism, the stated purpose of the museum policy is, in part, to “provide the means by which museums can increase their appeal to tourists” (1). While policy development explicitly began in the early 1980s in response to calls from the museum community, which commissioned the Kyte Report, and as part of the establishment of a heritage branch, the document was only released after a commitment in the 1989 Yukon Tourism Action Plan. Further, responsibility for the Policy and its associated programs have fallen within a department that includes tourism and is often perceived as more tourist focused (Interviews).

Looking at government action specific to the DCM, the Museum’s perceived role as a tourist site may also have contributed to successes and failures in securing funding for renovations to the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) (See Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive for a more detailed consideration of the OTAB in relation to the Museum). Until significant renovations in 1986-1987, the OTAB was, quite literally, an ice box that was inhabitable during the winter. They could only operate during the summer tourism season. Despite owning the building, the territorial government did not prioritize repairs and updates until a failed fire inspection.

There was more attention to the Museum’s issues with the space as part of discussions regarding funding for the Canada – Yukon Tourism agreement.  However, in the end, the DCM did not receive funding through the agreement. So the tourist role is not generally accredited for the successful advocacy. Success is attributed to an accident where a piece of the foundation was knocked down in front of the Minister, demonstrating the building’s unsafe conditions due to the rotting foundation (Interviews). However, it is important to note tourism related policies and initiatives contributed to greater attention to the Dawson City Museum and its housing needs by members of government at the time. Delays in the contemporary renovation, such as, repairs to the sprinkler system and the creation of offices on the main floor that would make staff more accessible to the community, may reflect the lack of connection between the needs for these renovations and the Museum’s role as a tourist attraction (vs. heritage or community resource as explored in future posts), which multiple research participants suggested is of greater concern for the territorial government. 

In short, from 1954 until about 1975 the DCM was primarily a tourist destination that stored objects for people to see from late May to September. This role was established through community action and encouraged through government policy, such as a grant for tourist sites. The Museum’s tourism role has continued over time and within the community it continues to be an important tourism destination with summer programming targeting that audience. However, from the 1970s, other roles emerged and began to receive more attention. Further, due to the challenges of hiring summer students (e.g., lack of housing), the number of students providing programming has declined from over 15 in the 1990s to 2 or 3 students. 

Importantly, the Museum’s role as a tourist site is, in many ways, not a role that the Museum’s management deliberately continue to cultivate. It is inherent to the nature of their operations (e.g., increased staffing and hours in summer). However, as explored in upcoming posts on different roles, the current Executive Director is most concerned with the DCM’s role as community resource. Interestingly, at different points of time, the tourism role is described as both existing in tension with and as part of the Museum’s relationship to the local community. The discussion will explore these ideas further, considering the ways tourism supports and is part of other roles, but can also become a barrier to those roles. 

Upcoming post

Next week, I will continue to explore the Museum’s roles, looking at its role as a heritage resource with perceived implicit value and as an employer.


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

Lotz, Jim R. 1964. “The Dawson Area: A Regional Monograph  No. 2.”  In Yukon Research Project Series, Northern Co-ordination and Research Centre, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Ottawa 4, Ontario.

4 thoughts on “Why a Museum?: Tourist Attraction (Part two)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: