Parks Canada used to have a team of curatorial staff to look after the massive collection of historical artifacts in Dawson City. The team consisted of a conservator, two curators and a collections specialist.
Together, the team helped organize, catalogue, showcase, repair and protect a collection of 250,000 artifacts worth in the neighbourhood of $100 million. They knew where everything was, how to care for it, and why you shouldn’t let performers put brass tacks into the felt hammers on an 1869 Beckstein piano borrowed from the collection.
The fake honkey-tonk sound isn’t worth damaging an instrument worth around $100,000.
Starting sometime this summer, Parks Canada will have one seasonal worker to manage the whole collection.
When Parks Canada had its funding slashed in the 2012 federal budget, the curatorial staff was cut along with public tours to the SS Klondike and Dredge No. 4 to save money.
A year-long public outcry led the government to bring back the tours by letting private companies take over running them. When he made the announcement in March, Yukon MP Ryan Leef promised there would also be a plan to take care of the Dawson City artifacts.
Anne Morin, Parks Canada’s Yukon superintendent, explained on Monday that the plan is to hire one person over the summer who will work with curatorial specialists in Ottawa to decide who gets to see and use the collection, and when.
“We’re in the process right now of staffing a seasonal collections position that’s going to be based in Dawson. That person, as soon as that person is selected, they’ll be directly supported by our collections specialists and curation experts that work out of our national office,” Morin said.
She said at first the plan was to have no one looking after the collection, but public pressure forced Parks to re-evaluate things.
“Previously we had staff there that were eliminated as part of our deficit reduction measures. We’ve reviewed our needs and we really heard clearly the concerns of stakeholders. That’s why that position is being created there,” she said.
Even so, that’s not good enough, according to Yukon historian Michael Gates. Before he retired, Gates was in charge of the team of specialists who looked after the collection. Even with four people, he said it was difficult to keep the collection safe while also allowing Yukoners to use it.
The pressure to let people access parts of the collection can be high, said Gates. In one case years ago, a film crew wanted access to the Robert Service Cabin, but no one told them they weren’t allowed to light a fire in the woodstove because it might cause damage.
“Artifacts that were sitting on the stove got burned. They were caring about making a movie and they needed a stove and they did what they had to do. Unless you had someone to safeguard unwise actions like that, a lot of damage can occur,” Gates said.
The idea of having one person on the ground who must contact Ottawa for permission to lend out artifacts, or help setting up a display properly, or simply to track down one of the quarter-million pieces in the warehouse makes no sense, said Gates.
“Someone needs to know which artifacts are safe to use and which ones aren’t. Who’s going to make those decisions?” he asked.
“It’s remote control management,” he said.
“They were responsible for creating some really top-notch exhibits. There’s nobody there to do that now. They’ll do their very best. They’re very professional people. But consider that they are responsible for 140 sites across the country, whereas Dawson City is just one.”
In 1979, Dawson City flooded. This left Parks staff scrambling to protect the many historical buildings, boats and collection artifacts. It took over two weeks for help to arrive from Ottawa, said Gates. He’s worried that with only one person on the ground, and only for a few months in the summer, the collection could be left vulnerable if the same thing happened again.
“The truth is they really haven’t done anything but shuffled some of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Any of the remedial actions that have been taken have fallen on the shoulders of the Parks Canada staff to sort these things out,” he said.
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