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Tales from the Dump: Museums provide a much greater sense of place

A look back in time at what a store resembled in the early days of Yellowknife, as seen at the Yellowknife Historical Society’s new museum. Kaicheng Xin/NNSL photo

Recently, I was doing a search on the internet to find some good quotations on museums.

Oddly enough, they were hard to come by. I’m not sure why but museums just don’t get the respect I think they deserve in our new electronic realms.

Eventually, I stumbled across a website called Museums Next and found a few good quotes I thought I would share but I wanted to start with a disclaimer. I like museums and when I was a kid, I got the opportunity to visit a number of them — big and small.

So here is the first quote: “Without museums it would be close to impossible to keep track of our history.” I believe this to be true. Let’s say you visit a community in the North, or anywhere in Canada for that matter, and you want to learn the history of the place. It is usually a lot harder than you think. You can find little bits and pieces of history on the internet and the place may have a brochure with a few facts, but most places don’t have what you would consider a comprehensive history. Also, if you were to ask people, you would get a jumble of stories.

Yellowknife started out as a frontier mining town and transportation hub for much of the North. When it became the capital, a whole bunch of bureaucrats arrived, and they wanted to radically change the city. New Town was developed, and businesses were encouraged to move there. The Kam Lake industrial zone was developed for industrial businesses and for dog team operators. That is an important part of our history as a city and explains some of what went on.

When I first arrived in Yellowknife back in the 1970s, buildings were being moved around, all over the place, as they sorted this out. Some buildings got moved two or three times. It was like a giant Monopoly game. Yet very little has been written about this period of Yellowknife’s history.

Personally, I think a brief history of every community in the North should be written so people remember the history and why certain things are the way are they are. Knowing the history of a place helps explain things and gives people a much better understanding of it. So, it is important, and you can learn a lot from past mistakes and successes.

Another interesting quote was, “Local museums can provide a sense of community and place, by celebrating our collective heritage.” Again, I believe this to be basically true and we should celebrate the facts and not get too carried away with biased rhetoric. In the North, we have another way of saying this: “We are all in this together.” We really do depend on one another.

When I first drove to Yellowknife in 1970 along the highway, there was a small community or gas station about every two hundred miles, and as you were pulling out a sign indicated that there would be no services for two hundred miles and asked whether you had a sleeping bag, supplies and food, an axe, and some way to start a fire. I think it was also illegal to drive past someone who was broken down, stuck or in trouble. It made sense because the road could be an awfully lonely place and it could be hours before someone drove by.

That was the reality of the North and people had to be prepared. To this day, people need to be prepared and newcomers to the North should be warned about those realities and the fact that we do depend on one another to a much greater extent than people in the big cities. We should learn from our history, and it should be shared.