Why a Museum?: Heritage Resources and Implicit Value (Part 3)

This post continues to consider the Dawson City Museum’s Role over time in relation to government policy and community action, focusing on the perceived value of museums as heritage resources.

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

Heritage Resource (Implicit?)

Amongst those who work and volunteer in museums, there is often an understanding that there is some inherent value in collecting and preserving heritage. While that value may be connected to other roles (e.g., education), collecting practice are often described as valuable without explicit reference to other aims or activities (e.g., the development of a dedicated teaching collection) that would achieve those objects. Similarly, exhibitions can and do connect museums to other roles (e.g., identity building), but for many museum people displaying artifacts is seen as a core museum function that does not necessarily need justification. A belief in the value of these museum practices suggests museums have implicit value as heritage resources. 

From its inception, the Dawson City Museum has been a kind of community attic that stored local treasures and displayed them to visitors. Through the collection, the community formed a relationship with the Museum. They donated artifacts and, as a result, “[The] collection related more to what the community thought was important” (Interview 7). The Museum’s collection of both artifacts and archival material has created a focal point for the development of a community of people around the Museum who were and are interested in the history of Klondike. This community began to grow in the 1970s when policy mechanisms emerged to support the Museum as a heritage resource with a valuable collection  

Prior to the 1970s, the Dawson City Museum’s collection was not well documented, and the Museum was run part time by volunteers. The DCM became a year-round employer in 1975 due to new federal employment funding and the availability of personnel with an interest in history and heritage (discussed in the section on the Museum as employer). One person recalled, 

I was working in the community, but I had a history degree. I had heard that there was a job opening at the Dawson Museum, so I went in to apply. They had already filled the position, but on the way out of the door, I had my hand on the doorknob and I turned back and said, “oh, by the way, I have a history degree.” And they said, “Come on back in. We’ll find a place for you.”

At the time, I thought I better stay here because I don’t think any other place else in Canada would hire you if you told them you had a history degree. So, it was a great opportunity for me.

Interview 7

The individuals hired through the 1970s and 1980s worked to professionalize the institution because they saw value in the Museum as a museum. The new staff were concerned with developing a collection management procedure and following best practices. They began to do research and organize the materials into exhibitions with themes, making dioramas of rooms and shops (Rubinsky 1976).

The grants used to fund the staff often had objectives outside of heritage (e.g., addressing unemployment), but they were mobilized to fulfill objectives around the professionalization of the Museum. One person recalled:

[The Director] got some grants that ran a couple of years and hired nineteen people. We set up, essentially, a modern museum like the staffing structure. That was really the beginning of pulling the Museum out of a curio shop into a museum with policies and procedures and an idea of what the correct way to go about things were.

Interview 7

The quoted text may refer to the $133,000 “work grant” received from the Department of Employment and Immigration’s Canada Community Services Program to support the three-year Klondike Heritage Services project beginning in 1981 (DCM Director’s Annual Report March 4th, 1981). The Project involved work on a resource center, education programs, audio-visual materials, registration and collection, photography, displays, and more (DCM Klondike Heritage Services Report). 

As the Museum developed capacity to hire year-round staff through work and project grants in the 1970s and 1980s, Parks Canada staff were becoming a larger part of the Dawson City community. They began to participate on the DCM’s Board and committees, helping to guide the Museum’s development. Additionally, as specialists came to Dawson City for work with Parks Canada, they were often introduced to the Museum’s staff to provide suggestions. As one person recalled:

We relied a lot on what we considered the elite conservation or maintenance of collections. We looked to Parks Canada for expertise, and they had a big crew at one time. They had more than 60 people working in town. They had a conservator… They were very generous in supporting the Museum always.

Interview 7

Due to federal policy, the Museum, therefore, benefited from the development of a broader Dawson City heritage community that believed in the value of preservation, collection, and interpretation.

On the one hand, staff became more focused on professionalization and the Museum’s role as a heritage resource as part of this larger heritage community from the 1970s, enabling the Museum to begin adhering to some best practices for community museums. However, at the same time, the use of project linked funding to employ people on contracts into the 1990s also hindered the professionalization and sustainable development of the Museum. The short-term nature of the funding, which was often connected to a range of funding objectives including and beyond the perceived value of heritage, contributed to discrepancies in the work completed. The reliance on project grants enabled, but were also a barrier to conserving or cataloguing the collection appropriately (DCM Collections Committee Report for 1988-9). As a Canadian Conservation Institute report argued:

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)

The limited number of full-time, year-round permanent staff at the time related to issues in funding specific to community museums as heritage resources. 

From the 1970s, when the Museum began hiring staff and the heritage community in Dawson City began to grow, funding for community museums also became available from the federal government. However, the DCM did not meet minimum requirements for some of the support available due to the poor condition of its physical space – that is, the Old Territorial Administration Building (Rubinsky 1976; For more information see Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive). They were only able to use one source of project-based funding from this new federal policy – that is, the National Inventory Assistance Cataloguing Grant to hire staff for work on the collection (DCM Minutes September 26, 1978; DCM Director’s Report May 30 1978). 

The Dawson City Museum was not alone in its limited ability to access funding targeting museums from the federal government. Community museums in Yukon made a limited use of the various grants “largely due to inadequate staff and facilities to qualify for them” (Lord Cultural Resources Planning & Management Inc. 1986, 12).  To help redress this issue and provide Yukon Museums with better access to federal programs, the Yukon Government hired a Museum Advisor in the 1980s. Then, they developed funding programs specific to community museums, including project funding that enabled access to cost sharing federal grants. Other forms of territorial support included an operational grant, a grant to subsidize a curator, and a provincial conservator who offered free conservation services. These support mechanisms aimed to support museums as valuable heritage resources. The first purpose articulated in the Museum Policy, which eventually articulated the rationale for these programs, is to “protect and preserve the Yukon’s historic resources” (1). 

The support available to Yukon community museums from the territorial government has evolved and changed since the 1980s. The changes often reflect an increased focus on developing professionalized heritage resources. For example, in the 1990s Yukon introduced a Collection Registration Coordinator who helped museums with their collections work, and eventually developed a territory wide collection database.  

The inclusion of First Nation’s Cultural Centers in the funding programs and as part of a Museum Strategy in the early 2000s more firmly positioned support for museums as a heritage policy with a focus on heritage for its own sake. The inclusion fulfilled a commitment in the Umbrella Final Agreement with Yukon First Nations, which includes a chapter on Heritage. One of the stated objectives in the Agreement is to “to promote public awareness, appreciation and understanding of all aspects of culture and heritage in the Yukon and, in particular, to respect and foster the culture and heritage of Yukon Indian People” (121). The agreement goes on to promise resources for the development of Indigenous heritage resource management and a continued equitable distribution. 

As cultural centers became integrated into the existing community museum support program in the 2000s, the territorial granting program shifted away from providing multiple project grants toward larger operating grants with a multi-year commitment further. While total funding to the Dawson City Museum did not increase significantly at first due to the Museum’s prolific use of project funding, the increased operational funding enabled the Museum to fund two core positions more securely. The operational program for community museums and First Nation Cultural Centers then increased in 2003/04 and 2007/08. A three year staged increase began in 2015. 

Although the increased funding and multiyear commitments show an renewed commitment to museums as valuable heritage institutions from a policy perspective, there were also corresponding declines in the advisory and technical services available to community museums at the national and territorial levels. For example, in the early 2000s, the territorial Museum Advisor gradually became less available to the Dawson City Museum and the position was eventually eliminated. The conservator position continued, but their responsibilities increased meaning the help available to individual institutions like the Dawson City Museum decreased. Due to Harper Era cuts in the 2010s, the availability of Parks Canada staff to provide support as part of the heritage community also declined (The relationship with Parks Canada will be discussed in more detail as part of a future working paper). 

Alongside the decline in Parks Canada’s presence, the 21st century saw growth in Dawson City’s heritage community. The Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin became established as a self-governing First Nation with a heritage department and cultural center. The Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin has provided key non-financial support to the Dawson City Museum, such as the provision of translation services for their exhibition renewal.

In short, from a policy perspective a perceived value of museums and support for heritage became more relevant in the 1980s when the Yukon Government developed a support program that targeted community museums as community museums. The territory’s financial commitment to supporting heritage increased in the 21st century following the Umbrella Final Agreement with Yukon First Nations and the inclusion of cultural centres in the existing support program. From a community perspective, the Museum’s role as a valued heritage resource was present from its inception. While community members started the Museum with tourism in mind, it became a kind of community attic. The perceived value of heritage became more prominent in the late 1970s with an influx of people due to Parks Canada’s expansion and the availability of employment grants that enabled the Museum to employ and train people with an interest in professionalizing the institution. There have been more recent changes to the local heritage community with a decline in Parks Canada’s presence and an increased Indigenous presence with the establishment of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin as a self governing First Nation.

Currently, I am reflecting on the ways these changes shape the kind of heritage work that is conducted and therefore valued due to the distinct expertise accessible to the Museum. I do not have a clear argument, but think this is an important consideration. For example, historically, support for the Museum’s role as a heritage resource often meant a focus on collections based work, such as collecting, documentation, and conservation. More recently, it has involved supporting basic operations and the development of exhibitions with new narratives. The Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin provided funding to help support a pre-Gold Rush exhibition in the early 2000s, which expanded the heritage considered in the Museum. From 2014 to 2021, Museum staff worked on developing and implementing plans for renewed exhibitions, which led to a focus on the stories that objects can tell and the narratives that develop. Suggestions that arose in consultation with the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin were key to a shift from a timeline approach to a thematic one in the design. While past exhibition work aimed to learn from Indigenous Peoples about objects (e.g., commissioning people to create objects and documenting the process), the more recent example reflects an attempt to learn from Indigenous Peoples about how stories should be told.

In other words, the focus on the Museum’s role as a heritage resource has shifted from emphasizing objects to considering narrative. I am wondering: to what extent does this reflect changes in how museums broadly perceive their role as heritage resources? Relatedly, to what extent does it reflect the concerns of museum staff? To what extent does this reflect changes in policy and community described?

Upcoming Post

Friday’s post will compliment this one, discussing the Museum’s role as an employer. These roles are complimentary because, without staff, museums do not generally have the capacity to focus on their role as a heritage resource.


Lord Cultural Resources Planning & Management Inc. with Lori Patterson Jackson and Linda R. Johnson. 1986. Yukon Museums Policy and System Plan. Volume One. 

Rubinsky. 1976, June 9. “Renovated this Winter: Museum Reopens June 21 Officially. Whitehorse Daily Star.p. 22. 

Snowalter, Mirian. 1975, October 31. “Dawson Museum Society Finds Escape from Hole.” Whitehorse Daily Star.p. 21. 

3 thoughts on “Why a Museum?: Heritage Resources and Implicit Value (Part 3)

  1. We love reading your blog! Your unique perspective and genuine voice make a difference in the world. Keep writing, because your thoughts matter. Thank you for being who you are!

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