Why a Museum?: Identity Building (Part five)

This post continues to consider the Dawson City Museum’s Role over time in relation to government policy and community action, focusing on the Museum’s role in identity building. 

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

Identity Building

Museums have a role in (re)defining and reflecting identity within their communities because, as noted in Yukon’s Museum Policy, “knowing our past helps define who we are” (i). Identity is connected to collective and individual member of a past. From a policy perspective, the Museum’s role in (re)defining identity is most apparent during the 1990s when funding and attention increased as part of the decade of celebrations in the Yukon. However, to some extent, the Dawson City Museum’s role in (re)defining identity is evident from its foundation and is connected to its role as a heritage resource engaged in collecting. 

Members of the local community founded the DCM and gathered artifacts they believed were important, establishing a kind of community attic. When the Museum burnt in a fire in 1960, they contacted people with connections to the Klondike Gold Rush, seeking artifacts to rebuild the collection in time for the 1962 Gold Rush Festival. Aside from this call for donations and the 1975 purchase of the Dawson Hardware Museum, the DCM has primarily relied on a passive approach to collecting with regular donations. As one former employee described:

We essentially had a passive collections approach. We weren’t actively going out and searching for artifacts for the collection, but we would get regular offerings. Primarily, we would just get stuff sent in the mail to us by long-lost relatives of somebody who had been in the Gold Rush.

Interview 10

Using the collection received, the Museum has traditionally told stories and exhibited materials focused on the Klondike Gold Rush, reflecting a particular conception of Yukon history and identity.

The Museum’s focus on stories of the Gold Rush was amplified in the 1990s due, in part, to territorial policy. In the late 1980s, Yukon government formed the Yukon Anniversaries Commission to help celebrate upcoming milestones, such as the 100th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Alaskan Highway, and other anniversaries related to the colonization of the north. While the commission was part of the tourism action plan, it also had the goal to increase Yukoner’s understanding of who they were. 

The DCM used available attention and funding to expand their activities related to the celebrations. For example, travelling and temporary exhibitions focused on the centennials of the Klondike Gold Rush, the Yukon Order of Pioneers, and the Yukon Territory Act. The Museum was active on the local Centennial Anniversaries Committee and argued for funding from the municipality to subsidize more student employment. These students expanded the Museum’s public offerings with costumed interpretation in Dawson City. An Executive Director from the period recalled celebrating an idea of the past that people connected to, saying:

They understood that it was a bit of a fiction, but it came with a memory, and … it came with an illusion also. The illusion of what the Klondike was, and what Dawson City implied. We, in Dawson, celebrated those illusions…

You dressed in costume from a hundred years before, you talked about events that happened a hundred years ago, you stood in front of buildings that still were operating like the post office, and other things like that. The Palace Grand is a complete fabrication, yet it’s an accurate fabrication. Things like that provided a gift to a memory, even though the memory might not be about the truth.

Interview 8

The Museum’s participation in remembering the Gold Rush led to greater attention from communities of people with familial connection to this past. Most notably, in the late 1990s the Museum received a significant financial donation from the Lind Family Foundation to commemorate John G. Lind, a successful prospector. They used the funding to expand their consideration of a pre-gold rush era with a new gallery space that included information about Athapascan lifestyles. 

In the 1970s, the Museum previously tried to improve their presentation of Indigenous histories with an exhibition they developed following a major research project where they commissioned and documented the creation of artifacts. While both projects were forward thinking for a relatively small community museum at the time, the exhibitions functionally marginalized the identities of those represented due an orientation around the Gold Rush, which relegated Indigenous Peoples to a pre–Gold Rush Era.  In 2014, the DCM launched a renewal project that resulted in new exhibitions opened in 2022. As part of the new exhibitions, they shifted focus away from the Gold Rush to the people of the Klondike. The new exhibitions no longer portray history on a timeline and instead take a thematic approach that is more inclusive of a variety of memories of the Klondike. As the Director during the period explained:

We also knew that we wanted to … include the histories of important women in the history of the Klondike as part of the exhibits. We wanted to include francophones, we wanted to include black people in the history, [Jewish People] in the history of the Klondike, [and] we wanted to include communities that aren’t Dawson City. Dawson City is the largest and has always been the largest, settled community in the Klondike, but there have been others. Some with long and distinct histories of their own … So, there were a number of axes of inclusiveness that we wanted to address in designing the new exhibition.

Interview 1

Notably, this shift toward inclusiveness does not reflect a funding emphasis. However, there are community related factors that may have contributed to this change. First, the curator and director who worked on the renewal project were both trained museum professionals with an interest in emerging best practices. The museum community in Canada has had a greater focus on inclusiveness since about 2010. Second, during previous attempts to renew the exhibitions and include Indigenous voices, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in were not yet well established as a self-governing First Nation with an active heritage department and cultural center. As such, previous efforts involved collaborating with individuals but limited ongoing or integrated consultation. As part of the renewal effort, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in were invited into the conversation and contributed to significant decisions, such as the exhibition’s orientation around themes rather than a chronology. Indigenous Peoples are included throughout the exhibitions as people of the Klondike.

In short, the DCM has a role in (re)defining identity in the Yukon due to its activities presenting memory . From its foundation until recently, the Museum centered narratives about the Klondike Gold Rush and, therefore, a colonial identity. The emphasis became more pronounced in the 1990s as part of a decade of celebrations. More recently, the Museum has shifted away from a chronological depiction that centers the Klondike Gold Rush to a thematic depiction that centers the people of the Klondike. In so doing, they hope to be more inclusive in their representation. The change reflects the shift in community museum practices across the county and a change in the Museum’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples due to the establishment of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as a self-governing first nation with a heritage department and cultural center. 

Upcoming Post

There are two more posts on roles – community hub and undefined community resource – before I will begin providing a discussion and analysis.

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