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The Museum of Industry celebrates first 25 years

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s been 25 years since the Museum of Industry opened its doors to the public. In recognition of the museum’s 25th anniversary, museum director Debra McNabb submitted this piece on the museum’s beginning and first couple of decades …

By Debra McNabb

In the mid-1970s, businessmen Bill Sobey and Robert Tibbetts submitted a proposal to the Nova Scotia Museum to establish a museum of transportation and technology in Pictou County. They expressed an urgent concern about Nova Scotia’s disappearing industrial heritage, deeply felt in their community with its rich industrial past of coal mining, shipbuilding, forestry, iron-founding, steel-making and manufacturing. Unlike the objects associated with other kinds of heritage that become family heirlooms or collectibles and so survive, evidence of industrial heritage is more likely to be melted down as scrap or thrown away than be recognized as something to be saved for the benefit of future generations.

Studies were done, resulting in a recommendation for a museum of industry and transportation. Land once occupied by the Foord Pit (1866-1880) and earlier coal mines and adjacent to the Trans-Canada Highway was donated. An early design suggested a building shaped like a railway roundhouse, to accommodate a proposed donation of four locomotives. The final design was intended to suggest a factory with large, airy skylights overhead. The 80,000 square foot museum was erected 1988-1990, making it the largest museum building in Atlantic Canada and the 27th site of the Nova Scotia Museum.

A curator was hired in 1986 to begin to assemble an industrial collection before more important objects were lost. Later, an exhibit planning team explored how to use the collection and what to interpret of the breadth, depth and extent of industrial heritage that stretched from Yarmouth to Sydney to Amherst. They identified more than 100 themes and in the absence of publications on our industrial history, commissioned research to provide more information to inform interpretation. Another team, under the supervision of a conservator, began to preserve and restore automobiles, machinery and locomotives for display.

The Nova Scotia Museum of Industry opened to the public June 14, 1995 with 12,000 square feet of exhibits and a second gallery full of large artifacts. Two years later, exhibits were created in the second gallery, bringing a loosely chronological story of how Nova Scotia industrialized up to the year 1998.

Since then, the collection has continued to grow (34,000 artifacts and specimens) thanks to the donations of Nova Scotians and others, and the mandate of the Museum has become more sharply focused on the human story of industrialization, the nature of and experience of work in our province.

The Museum also has become a gathering place for the community, hosting many events of local and national importance. The grounds were designated a National Historic Site because of the role they played in the importance of the Nova Scotia coalfields to the development of Canada. To demonstrate this significance, an archaeology program searches for evidence of the arrival of the British Industrial Revolution in Nova Scotia through historic activities on the site.

As the Museum of Industry celebrates in 2020 the 25th anniversary of serving the public, it looks ahead to using research done since it first opened to fill gaps in the stories told in its exhibits and activities. It hopes to strengthen community partnerships and find new ones. And mostly, it strives to continue to make meaning with the objects of industrialization — objects that seem much rarer and unfamiliar in our experience today than they did when they were collected almost 35 years ago.

Coal mining exhibit, Museum of Industry. (Submitted photo)