Story & Photos
by Torey Ellis
As the Dawson City Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary in its current home, one former director remembers the earlier OTAB days.
“It was cold,” says Kathy Jones-Gates over the telephone from her home in Whitehorse, recalling days when a tiny furnace barely touched the May chill in the one-room exhibit.
“But there were lots of highlights to make that cold weather work pretty special.”
Jones-Gates worked at the museum from 1972 to 1982, back when it only took up the south wing of the Old Territorial Administration Building. Exhibits were made up of artifacts behind glass barriers and a big book of photographs – a far cry from the three exhibits and two floors the museum now occupies, and the dramatic interpretive performances.
At that point the OTAB was still feeling the effects of the 1979 flood that weakened its foundations and scraping for every government grant it could get.
“The museum has had to fight for its place in the scheme of things and it’s done quite well,” Jones-Gates says. She was a part of that process; the work she and her team did led to the restoration of the OTAB in in 1980s.
“That to me was the legacy of all our efforts to say yes, this is valuable,” she says. Though she says she’d reached the “burn-out phase” by 1982, she still remembers those years fondly.
“I gave it 10 years, I learned a lot, and I take pride that it all contributed to the restoration and to the awesome building we have today,” she says.
“I say we, because I still feel like a Dawsonite,” she adds.
Jones-Gates and her husband Michael Gates usually come up to Dawson every year, and she makes a point of touring the museum.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing and wonderful, what they’re doing now,” she says, referring to the interpretive programs the museum does throughout each day.
Laura Mann, the museum’s current director, is equally as enamoured with her current staff, often remarking on their talent.
“It’s funny, because 50 years old really isn’t very old – speaking as someone who’s in her 50s,” she says. “But in the Yukon, we are among the oldest institutions. We’ve been in this building for 50 years, we were around a few years before then. It’s hard to believe.”
The April sprinkler system disaster washed away any plans to celebrate this summer – Canada Day, for instance, was supposed to be a much bigger celebration. Now, Mann hopes to turn the annual November auction into a joint celebration.
“And you know what? In the end, it’s probably just as well. The 50th anniversary should be for the local community, and that makes it a winter event.”
“Of course, in the summertime we are all about the Gold Rush; we are all about the visitor who comes to town,” she adds. “In the winter we are what the community needs us to be. Then, we show our innovation, we show our ability to think outside the box, and we show our responsiveness to what we see the community needing.”
Jones-Gates remembers similar innovation from her day.
“There were lots of creative people then, as Dawson always has,” she says. “We survived on a lot of grants, a lot of interest in the museum, and a lot of people donating artifacts and supporting us.”