Thursday, 9 October 2014

NORTHERN WAYS OF SEEING: RESEARCH IN THE MUSEUM COMMUNITY

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: ALEX SOMERVILLE

Editor's Note: Alexander Somerville is a second year MMSt student with an undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University in linguistics who has worked at the Dawson Museum since 2011. If you are a Museum Studies student engaged in research for a work, volunteer, or school project that you would like to share, please contact Robin Nelson

Among the joys of being the junior employee of a two staff museum is the joy of going to events that don’t interest your boss. This is why I got to attend a planning conference for a camera obscura festival this summer in Dawson City, Yukon.

In 2015, Dawson City, Yukon, will host an international group of artists and scholars for a festival of camera obscuras. Going in, I entertained a vague notion of a camera obscura as an early photographic device related somehow to pinhole photography. I had even vaguer notions about my own contributions, or the museum’s, to the festival, but in the spirit of ambassadorship I prepared to represent the museums interests in planning this festival.

As I read the planning conference brief, I moved toward the conclusion that the festival was mostly an artistic one– despite the attendance of scholars from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science– and that, besides a venue, our museum had little to offer the planners. That was until I reached the phrase, “northern ways of seeing.” Then there were fireworks in my brain.

Northern ways of seeing. What are those, I asked myself? Are there northern ways of seeing? How are they different from other ways of seeing and how did they get that way? As a museum studies student, I am very interested in ways of seeing. I knew then what contribution I could make– I would research and present one interpretation of northern ways of seeing. It came to me while I was sitting in the south-west corner of the museum.

Vernacular log cabin architecture of the early gold rush period, representative of Bill Haskell's description of a pre-gold rush log cabin. Image from Wikimedia.
Now, the Dawson City Museum is housed in a 1901 building, where the government of the Yukon sat before they moved to Whitehorse in 1953. The building was built by Thomas W. Fuller, an architect of the federal Department of Public Works. He was also responsible for 5 other public buildings in Dawson, including a court house and a post office, all of which were applauded locally as comparable to the best examples of public architecture in the south. This was actually a problem.

The west-facing facade of the Dawson City Museum building, built as the Territorial Administration Building in 1901 by Thomas W. Fuller.
The problem is about ways of seeing, and of being seen. In a nutshell, Fuller’s buildings were designed in part to demonstrate the commitment of the federal government to developing the Yukon, and this was especially important because of the considerable minority of American citizens in the Yukon at the time. Taking advantage of his southern training, Fuller used large windows to demonstrate status, taking advantage of the plate glass that had transformed visual culture in the south.

The decision to use windows so profusely in his designs is interesting because, before the gold rush, buildings used very few and very small windows. There were good reasons for small and few windows: glass was expensive and risky to transport from the south, and windows compromised a building’s insulation during long northern winters that could reach -60 C. Furthermore, windows served little purpose, since for half of the year there was very little sun, and the rest of the year there was altogether too much. 

Post-gold rush architectural Post Office in Dawson, betraying its southern fenestration.
Fuller’s buildings in Dawson, being more window than wall, were prohibitively expensive to heat through the winters, and consequently, many closed in the years after the gold rush. And even during the summer time the windows caused problems. After completion, south and west facing windows were fitted with awnings to keep out the sun!

To sum up my research so far: ways of seeing among white settlers in the Yukon adopted some of the distinctive features of southern ways of seeing during and in the aftermath of the Klondike gold rush. Building with windows is so far one of my favorite examples, and I look forward to gathering more evidence and enriching my claims before next year’s camera obscura conference. I appreciate any questions, observations, and feedback from readers!

1 comment:

  1. Alex, this is fascinating! I would like for you to think (and write) a little more about what do you mean by Southern ways of seeing (it is a great concept to use in the context of this research). Another think to consider: what kind of research would you need to do to gather some information about the ways of seeing during the Klonkide Gold Rush! Keep us posted about this research adventure!

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