Why a Museum?: Additional Factors and Interconnectivity (Part nine)

This post continues to consider the Dawson City Museum’s Role over time in relation to government policy and community action, continuing the discussion with a reflection on additional factors of significance and interconnectivity.

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

Factors beyond policy and community

Within this paper and the Dawson City Museum (DCM) project more broadly, we have examined the DCM’s role and development in relationship to policy and community. Notably, these are not the only factors of importance. A consistent finding across my research is that people do the work of museums and, as a result, they have significant effects on the direction of the institution. The Dawson City Museum Project has highlighted the critical influence of a paid director / curator in determining where the Museum’s focus should be and, therefore, its role. 

The first full time, year round employee provides a key example of how one individual ultimately shapes what the Museum can accomplish. Through her work, the Museum evolved from being a volunteer run seasonal operation to year round institution with staff. She established the use of employment programs to employ people year round, including herself, and articulated the need for a variety of funding sources to support the professionalization of the Museum. Using intersecting sources of funding and earned revenue, she was able to prioritize establishing the Museum as a valuable heritage resource that adhered to the best practices of the day (or at least tried). 

The influence of an individual director and their priorities is also evident when looking at who was employed in addition to a director in the 21st century. Within their budget, the DCM can most comfortably employ two people full-time, year-round – that is, a director and one other position (Interview 1). From 2008 to 2011, the Museum employed a Program Manager who was able to seek external funding to engage in projects with the school. The position was not filled after the departure of a Program Manager in 2011. The Director then chose to prioritize collection and curation work instead of programming. Collaboration with the school became minimal. As stated in a review of the Director’s first five years (2007-2012):

Educational programming for schools has been plagued by the lack of consistent staffing.  Programs have been developed but without a program manager in place, they are being suspended.  The programs that have been developed including A Night in the Museum (sponsored by Yukon Energy) and the Museum kit “Simple Tools” (also sponsored by Yukon Energy) have been very positively received. 

Dawson City Museum Digital Files

Before departing the Museum in 2015, the Director attempted to expand the museum staff to include a curator, archivist, and interpreter, but the Museum did not have the budget to sustain the increase. When the interpreter stepped into the Director position, he made the decision to prioritize the curator who was working on an exhibit renewal, which could be supported with grants for upcoming projects, rather than the archivist.

Notably, the effect of an individual is in some ways more pronounced in the 21st century due to the shift from a board engaged in operational activities to a policy governance board. Before the change, archival data demonstrates some individual board members were extremely active in the Museum’s activities, influencing what could be accomplished and, therefore, the role of the Museum. Following the change, conflicts emerged between the board and director when board members attempted to take a more active role in the institution’s operations (e.g., manage movie nights). Additionally, as previously mentioned, from the 1970s into the 1990s, the Museum experienced some consistency in the contract staff employed for projects, which stopped when these individuals left Dawson City and/or became employed in full time positions elsewhere. 

In short, the research outlines the influence of government policy and community on the Museum’s roles, but those are not the only factors of relevance that emerged in the interviews and archival data. That being said, the factors outlined in this section may in fact relate to broader trends within the community. For example, changing the board from an operational board to a policy governance board was an initiative by the Director at the time, which reflected best practices in museum management where a policy governance board is often encouraged. However, it also reflected changing volunteer trends in the local community. With the emergence of a greater number of organizations within the arts and cultural sector in Dawson City, the pool of available volunteers with the capacity to take a more active board role is greatly diminished. 


Importantly and as emphasized in the section on community resources, the roles outlined are not always conceptualized and enacted as distinct roles. For example, some may see identity building as inherently connected to the Museum’s value as a heritage resource. Further, as a tourist asset the museum is acting as a community resource due to the importance of tourism to the local economy. Moreover, the different roles have supported each other. As discussed elsewhere, the Museum’s role as an employer was critical to supporting its establishment as an important heritage resource. While the Museum accessed employment grants and therefore made arguments about its role to government and established itself as a valuable employer in the community, employment was a means to an end rather than the core objective for the Museum. 

The Museum most actively connected itself to multiple policy objectives of importance to governments at the time in the 1990s. As a result, the Museum was a significant employer that served as a hub of activity and community. They received increased funding and attention due to intersecting programs, which enabled the Museum to engage in more activities and larger projects of long-term benefit. For example, they received a private donation that funded the construction of a more secure storage space using additional government funding. The work was further supported with gifts in kind from the community (interviews). While the initial private donation was the result of relationships developed between the family and people associated with the DCM, it is important to consider why and how these relationships formed. The 1990s were a decade of celebration for the Yukon, leading to government investment due to tourism and a desire to strengthen conceptions of Yukon identity. As explored elsewhere, the Museum was connected to this work, which helped increase their profile in the community. At the same time, the Museum accessed a variety of employment and project grants to accomplish more, which increased their profile within the local community and with visitors.

While the 1990s show the potential benefits of addressing multiple policy objectives as interconnected support enabled the Museum to fulfill a variety of roles in the community, the approach was ultimately unsustainable due to changes in the community (e.g., departure of key staff) and existing policy discussed when outlining the Museum’s role in relation to policy and community action over time (e.g., changes to direct employment funding). Further,  emphasis on specific roles or policy objectives can hinder the Museum’s ability to fill others. 

In particular, there is a perception amongst some in the museum community broadly and some people interviewed more specifically that pursuing tourism-related objectives can be detrimental to Museum roles, such as those oriented toward the local community (interviews). Conducting activities for tourists or engaging work around tourism takes staff time that is then not spent on other things associated with other roles like collections care or creating school programs. Importantly, the issue is nuanced. For example, the policy emphasis on student employment rather than winter unemployment can direct subsidized labour toward tourism as seen with costumed interpretation. As a result, year round staff spend time on recruitment, training, and the management of tourist oriented activities. However, the availability of students to engage in the front-facing work of the Museum also frees up staff time to do the less visible work of the Museum that often contributes to other objectives. As a result, depending on how the students are managed by the staff at the time and needs in a particular year, the funding for tourism related staff both contributes to and detracts from the time available for other roles.

In short, there is interconnectivity in the roles museums enact. The categories created for this working paper are in some ways artificial and imposed on the far less ordered reality of museum work. Moreover, funding and support intersects to support a broad tapestry of activities. As such, when museums work to meet one objective it can both support and detract from meeting another.

Upcoming posts

On Friday, I will be posting the final discussion piece and conclusion for this working paper. Next week, I will be changing tracks and posting regarding some other projects before returning with some more DCM stuff!

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