Why a Museum?: Discussion and Reflection on Past Research (Part eight)

This post continues to consider the Dawson City Museum’s Role over time in relation to government policy and community action, beginning the discussion with a reflection on past research.

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

  • Reflection on Past Research (Part eight B)


From a policy perspective, the are a multiplicity of uses for museums (Bennett 1995). The multiplicity of uses is reflected in the roles the Dawson City Museum has enacted as it accesses a variety of funding programs and other forms of support, such as those related to tourism or unemployment. The policy objectives addressed reflect the perceived needs of DCM communities, which have evolved over time and shape the role(s) seen as most significant to those involved.  

Changing and different understandings of community museum’s role are important to consider because they affect what museums can accomplish with limited resources due to what is funded or supported and where staff spends their time. Changes in how staff spend time have a significant influence on the institution’s relationship with their community. To demonstrate this connection and summarize previous posts, the table below outlines the roles, associated support mechanisms, community connections that have resulted or contributed, museum activities that resulted or reinforced, and factors that have contributed to emphasis in moments of time. 

RoleSupport MechanismsCommunity ConnectionsMuseum activitiesReasons for Emphasis
TourismFunding for tourist attractions
Marketing initiatives (e.g., Passport program)
Increased attention 
Community desire for strong tourism economy
Historically, increased summer labour force 
Summer programming (e.g., costumed interpretation)Community need
Political attention
Historical explicit emphasis: Funding availability
Contemporary implicit connection: Student employment programs 
Heritage ResourceTargeted funding
Advisory services
Technical services and support
Local heritage communityCollections management
Concern with best practices and professionalization
Exhibit renewal
Increased targeted funding and support
EmployerDirect employment fundingSeasonal unemploymentVaried (e.g., supports role as heritage resource)Funding availability
Identity BuilderFunding (and attention) for anniversaries and celebrations Connected to tourismProgramming and activities that celebrate key milestonesAnniversaries
Community hubFunding for a variety of activity and employmentObjective to raise awarenessEvents
Programs targeting locals
Goal to increase community participation
Community resourceVariousVariousPresence in the community
Staff Changing best practice
Table one: Roles in Relation to Government and Community Action

Due to the connection between what a community museum can accomplish and the funding or support received, an underlining theme of my research examining community museum policy over time has been to ask – How is support for community museums legitimized within policy discussion? There are significant similarities and difference between the Dawson City Museum’s attachment to policy and arguments examined elsewhere. The first part of the discussion will reflect on past research to consider national similarities and subnational differences in community museums’ connection to policy. Although government and community action were a research focus for the Dawson City Museum Project, they are not the only factors that emerged as important to the Museum’s role in the community. Staff and, in particular, the director were also identified as significant influences as outlined in the second part of the discussion. The third section will discuss the interconnectivity of the different roles and examined to explain how some roles may support or detract from others. Finally, the discussion will conclude with a consideration of the significance of different roles in shaping the Museum’s relationships to community. 

Reflection on Past Research

In my doctoral dissertation, I examined the role of community museums in Ontario as articulated through cultural policy, advocacy, and their governance.  The roles articulate were educational, tourism, agents of social change (identity building), and an inherent value of museums as collecting institutions (heritage resource). Further, support for community museums was seen as an important component in supporting local action. While the project had a different focus than the Dawson City Museum Project – that is, on community museums in a province broadly vs. a specific community museum in a territory – there are key similarities and differences between the Ontario and Yukon cases that provide insights and raise questions on accepted roles for community museums within government policy (I provided some initial reflections on this topic in a Keynote for the Ontario Historical Society here).

Interestingly, there is limited attention to educational objectives associated with formal education system within the Dawson City Museum’s relationship to government policy. That is not to say formal education has never been a focus for the Museum as part of its relationship to the community, but that focus is intermittent and usually limited to brief periods where someone was employed in an interpretation role full time at the Museum or funding became available outside government. Within Yukon community museum policy and related discussions considered for the DCM project, the role of museums in educating people around Yukon identity is clearly articulation, but the connection to the formal education system is not prominent. Conversely, in Ontario, there is a longstanding connection between the government education objectives and community museums. Support for community museums began in a department responsible for education and the museum community advocated for their inclusion into curriculum documents (Nelson 2021). The comparatively limited connection between museums and education policy in Yukon reflects differences in the roots and growth of the museum support programs, suggesting distinct subnational rationales for supporting community museums.

The Dawson City Museum’s connection to economic rationales reflects prominent historical policy objectives for museums at both the territorial and federal levels as well as the perceived needs of the local community. Federally, the DCM attached itself to employment objectives and programs related to unemployment from the 1970s, which expanded the work they could accomplish as a heritage resource and fulfilled a regional need for winter employment. These programs became less available in the 1990s. At the same time, the Canadian Museums Association began to administer Young Canada Works, which makes an explicit connection between museum activity and youth employment objectives. However, the shift toward student summer unemployment reinforced a focus on tourism-oriented activities. While the DCM’s contemporary work to attach itself to the tourism industry is limited, the Museum’s role as a tourist asset persists and is key to its historical relationship to both territorial government and community action. 

Ontario community museums share the historic and ongoing connection to tourism objectives in policy and a subnational department that includes tourism. However, the museum community more actively advocates for that connection to legitimize and advocate for increases in provincial support (Nelson 2021). The contemporary difference reflects, perhaps, the differences between the subnational museum associations. While the Yukon Museums and Historical Association produced reports that prompted change (e.g., the Kyte Report) and were active strong advocates for museum policy in the 20th century, interviews with staff from the Dawson City Museum and an analysis of publicly available materials suggest they are much less active advocates for museums today. Conversely, advocacy is a key activity for the much larger Ontario Museums Association, which produces materials to support arguments for community museums. The difference may also reflect Yukon government’s increases to the museum support program since the 2000s, which were seemingly based on arguments for the perceived implicit value of museums as heritage resources. These arguments were strengthened with the inclusion of First Nation Cultural Centers in the support programs. In comparison, in Ontario, First Nation Band Councils were eligible for funding for museums early in the operating grant’s creation. However, in practice, few have received these grants and the introduction of museum standards in the 1980s have functionally restricted access to the funding program (Nelson 2021). Interestingly, when standards were developed and then introduced in Yukon, the First Nation Cultural Centers successfully argued against their inclusion as requirements for funding increases. 

While the argument for museums as heritage resources in some ways seems stronger in Yukon, in other ways it does not. Declines in non-financial support that target community museums like the Dawson City Museum are similar in both Yukon and Ontario. For example, Ontario continues to have an advisory service, but the advisory service is significantly diminished without conservators and with only one advisor who primarily manages the funding program. Similarly, Yukon continues to have an advisory service, but there is no longer a designated museums advisor, and the conservator provides less direct assistance to the Museum because they now have more responsibilities. The declines in the provision of advisory services likely relate to changes in accepted government activities where these direct services are no longer seen as the purview of government. However, it may also relate to the fact that arguments for advisory services that target community museums necessarily rely on a belief in the value of heritage resources. They were established at times when the heritage resource argument was made alongside other arguments and, in particular, tourism related rationales whereby the presence of a well-run heritage resource provide a tourist attraction (Nelson 2021). Notably, when Yukon’s community museum support program was established as a heritage program with an advisor in the 1980s, the museum community made arguments for heritage value alongside statements about the already accepted tourist value of museums. 

Another key similarity in the Ontario and Yukon cases is the emphasis on community museum’s role in shaping public memory and identity. The Dawson City Museum’s role in shaping public memory and identity became most evident during the Yukon’s decade of celebration. However, the Museum has a longstanding role in contributing to a discourse that reinforced identity building around memories of the Klondike Gold Rush. Notably, as seen in the Ontario case, there is a more recent emphasis on presenting a more comprehensive public memory that acknowledges and celebrates diverse identities. In both cases, the shift is not necessarily directed by funding availability. However, there are a number of policies that have contributed to a public discourse supporting the change, such as the establishing of self-governing First Nations in Yukon and the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s calls to action. The shift also reflects changing conceptions of best practices in the museum community across Canada to serve their local communities more fully.

In short, the roles for the Dawson City Museum articulated above are not unique to the Museum. They reflect policy in Yukon and other jurisdictions. However, the roles are notable for the historic emphasis on economic rationales, which are central to the development of support for the Museum within governments and the community. Further, the Yukon’s willingness in the 21st century to support museums based, seemingly, on a perceived value of heritage resources is distinctive. That being said, there are factors that undermine this commitment, such as the decline in advisory support and delays in implementing renovations at the Old Territorial Administration building discussed elsewhere

Upcoming Posts

While the weekly deadlines have been great for editing and ensuring work gets done on the DCM Project, I need to take a week off because I am moving. I will start back up the week of May 22 with two posts that finish the discussion as outlined above.


Bennett, Tony. 1995. “The Multiplication of Culture’s Utility.” Critical Inquiry. 21(4): 861-889. 

Nelson, Robin. 2021. Community Museum Governance: The (Re)Definition of Sectoral Representation and Policy Instruments in Ontario. Thesis. Accessed: https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/41904

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