Why a Museum?: Conclusion

The “Why a Museum?” working paper has outlined the Dawson City Museum’s (DCM) roles over time as a tourist attraction, heritage resource, year-round employer, identity builder, community hub, and a community resource more broadly in relation to government policy and community action. The findings have reflected past research with some key differences, demonstrated the significance of individuals in shaping the Museum’s work, and described an interconnected tapestry of objectives that inform and are informed by relationships with the community. As I reflected on the significance of the Museum’s roles and its relationships, four conclusions emerged that may have broader relevance to community museums as they define their purpose with support from government and community. 

First, a community museum’s role as a heritage resource working toward best practices as they evolve (e.g., developing collections policies in the 1980s or working to develop more inclusive exhibitions in the 21st century) is important to the community of people who gather around the institution with an interest in doing the work needed to be a heritage resource (e.g., research, collections care). For example, since at least the late 1970s, the Dawson City Museum has benefited from the presence of a relatively large local heritage community that supports its work. Historically, Parks Canada was an important source of support with staff serving on boards and committees. More recently, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s heritage department and cultural center were an invaluable resource as the Museum renewed the exhibitions to reflect contemporary practices related to representation. 

Second, greater inclusion in the museum support program led to greater financial support for community museums as heritage resources. Heritage resource management was considered and seen as valuable within chapter 13 of the 1993 Umbrella Final Agreement between the Government of Canada, the Council for Yukon Indians and the Government of the Yukon, which lead to the 1998 Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement and the establishment of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as a self governing first nation with a heritage department. The establishment of self-governing First Nations with the promise of funding to catch up and keep up to “non-Indian Heritage Resources” led to the addition of cultural centers with a strong advocacy position in the territorial funding program for community museums. Their inclusion, in addition to the advocacy of museums like the Dawson City Museum in the early 2000s, led to greater flexibility in the funding program (e.g., a shift from project to operational funding, multi-year commitments). The reality that greater inclusion strengthened in policy helped make the case for museum operational funding without an associated emphasis on economic objectives is significant. In other jurisdictions, museum communities have argued for restrictions that would protect funding for existing institutions by excluding others (e.g., Nelson 2020). 

Third, there is a tension in museum practice regarding the perceived value of the objectives pursued by staff and those valued by supporters, such as governments providing funding. At the Dawson City Museum, the tension is evident in how tourism is discussed. Since its foundation, tourism has been an accepted role for the DCM, but it is no longer cultivated in the same way it once was. Staff often prioritize other objectives in their relationships with both policy and community. As such, serving tourists is sometimes described as something the Museum does but not what staff would prefer to do. For example, in the 1990s, one director noted that “the museum finds itself acting as a regional museum aimed at attracting tourists rather than a community museum preserving and interpreting local heritage (as  they  would prefer)” (English 1997).

Despite the, at times, negative perception of tourism as a museum objective, the Dawson City Museum’s role as a tourist asset was historically key to cultivating support from both government and community.  Territorial support for Museums started as funding for tourist sites and targeted programs developed due, in part, to an accepted value of museums to tourists. An active role in tourism related activities has connected the Museum to the community and served local interest. For example, a travelling exhibition celebrating the centennial of the Gold Rush developed in the 1990s was seen as “a promotional vehicle for the community” as well as the Museum’s “contribution to the economy and cultural tourism industry in Dawson” (English 1997). 

The historical importance of the Museum’s tourism role has led me to question accepted narratives about what is valuable museum work. The Museum had a role in the development of the local tourism industry in the 1950s and 1960s, which was important to sustaining the community.  In the 1990s, the Museum was, in many ways, most actively contributing to and participating in the local tourism industry. Their activities not only served an important local need, but also led to additional funding and attention that supported other objectives. The period is referred to by some interview participants as a golden age for the Museum. While there are a variety of factors that contributed to this so-called golden age (e.g., availability of funding, availability of staff and volunteers), the Museum’s focus on tourism in its activities contributed to its successes. Within its community, the DCM’s tourism role has been incredibly important and valuable. 

Finally, a community museum’s role as an employer within a community that has significant employment needs (e.g., for winter employment) is in many ways its most important. Not only does the provision of jobs fill a community need, but it fills a vital Museum need – that is, for labour to support any of the objectives they would like to accomplish. Museums simply cannot do their work without people who are supported through flexible operating grant funding, earned revenues and (historically) project or employment grants.  Increases in Yukon’s operating grant for community museums has provided the DCM with stability and, therefore, capacity to (re)consider its role. They have been able to focus on what those working at the Museum feel is important (e.g., relationship building with the local community) rather than creating multiple intersecting projects to access grant funding. To some extent, the Museum has a continued need to articulate projects to support its operations because the territorial Special Capital Projects  Assistance Program provides the funding that supports one position. However, the need is not as great as it once was. At the same time, there are fewer direct employment grants for winter staff. As a result, the Museum is not a hub for employment in the winter as it once was. I wonder to what extent the decreased employment opportunities have contributed to a more limited presence in the community. 

While these are the conclusions that emerge as significant to me, I may be missing something important.

What do you think? What is a museum’s role? How are those roles informed by government policy and community action? Are particular roles and associated objectives in some ways more valuable than others. If so, how?


English, Elizabeth Anne. 1997. Cultural Tourism Planning: A Case Study, Dawson City, Yukon. Masters Thesis, University of Calgary.

Nelson, Robin. (2020). The museum community and community museum governance. Governance Review, 17(1), 45-66. https://doi.org/10.7202/1070342ar

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