Leaving her legacy

Community Featured

It was an honour fitting the occasion.

Debra McNabb was recently presented with the Award of Excellence in Museum Practices, Individual Contribution.

She received the Nova Scotia crystal award recently at the annual general meeting of the Association of Nova Scotia Museums, held in a virtual format due to Public Health restrictions for COVID-19.

McNabb retired July 1 as director of the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry in Stellarton. The award was a final accolade for McNabb who spent 32 years at the museum.

In nominating McNabb for the award, the museum’s marketing services officer Denise Taylor wrote: “(McNabb) made a significant contribution to the development and sustainability of MOI and to the preservation and promotion of Nova Scotia’s industrial heritage… Her dedication and hard work were core to the development and establishment of the Museum of Industry… Through her efforts the museum is a critical pillar in the industrial heritage community, but also a strong community partner that has built relationships with many groups, including the Westray Families Group and Pictou County Safe Harbour.”

Taylor presented the physical award following a congratulatory message via video from Lt.-Gov. Arthur J. LeBlanc.

McNabb has clearly put her imprint on the museum after more than three decades of work there and through six different positions.

She came to work at the museum in 1988 and throughout her years there has virtually worked on everything from design and fabrication of gallery spaces to programming, developing collections to building community connections — and all points in between.

Hailing from Glace Bay — the heart of industrial Cape Breton — she came to Stellarton from Halifax in 1988 after finishing a Masters degree.

“I had attended a session for academics on ideas about what the Museum of Industry should be,” she recalls. “After that I was invited to apply for a job.”

It was a perfect fit since McNabb has an interest in Nova Scotia’s industrial history.

At that time, the museum building in Stellarton hadn’t even been completed and had just one employee — the curator of collections. McNabb’s job was a junior position to help that person, as registrar of collections.

“Because of my interest in the area I thought I’d come here for a couple of years,” she smiles.

So much for that thought.

When the curator of collections left, McNabb took over that position. It became a management position in a re-organization within the Nova Scotia Museum’s mandate. Her new role was as manager of collections.

In 1993, before the Stellarton museum was even open to the public, budget cuts under Premier John Savage put the museum in jeopardy.

“I was on vacation in Cape Breton when I got a phone call” that the brand new museum would be shut down.

She was offered the job as manager of collections for the Nova Scotia Museum. “But I took the layoff because I really felt that the only reason why I wanted to work in museums was because I wanted to work on this project.”

Since the impetus for the museum was led by Bill Sobey and Bob Tibbetts who saw that Pictou County was rich with industrial heritage and they lobbied government for it starting in 1975, McNabb was acutely aware of its importance to the community. A citizens group to have the museum opened was started under the leadership of Donald Sobey; the Friends of the Museum of Industry Society grew both in numbers and strength. The province turned over management of the museum to this local group who hired John Hault to manage it; Hault asked McNabb to come back as manager of exhibits.

The Museum of Industry was finally opened to the public amid much fanfare on June 14, 1995. Later, McNabb became assistant director under the Friends of the Museum of Industry Society and she has the utmost respect for the role they played.

“They kept (the museum) alive and they got it open,” she lauds.

Later, the Museum became directly managed by the Province again, so when the executive director of the Nova Scotia Museum called McNabb and asked her to serve as acting director, it was a position McNabb couldn’t refuse.

And she hasn’t looked back.

“I have felt privileged to participate in the creation of a new museum, to have input into what items are saved for its artifact collection, what stories are told in its exhibits, and discovering ways to partner with the public. The most exciting part about my time here at the Museum of Industry has been creating the exhibits,” McNabb says. With somewhere in the vicinity of 34,000 pieces in the collection which spans the 1820s to today (ranging from something as small as a union pin to as large as a locomotive) and at almost 30,000 square feet of galleries, creating exhibits was a wonderful challenge for McNabb. With that much space to fill with exhibits covering a massive theme — industrial history of Nova Scotia — McNabb was up to the task of developing the exhibit by determining what was important and how to talk about and highlight that.

“For me, with a background in geography, it was important that this be the story of Nova Scotia, rather than just the story of industrial history.”

She used industrial stories, industrial objects and industrial history to create a vision.

And she got it right.

“The Museum of Industry is unique in Canada in that it preserves and interprets an entire province’s industrial heritage. Others are either about a single industry, technology or city.

“As time goes on, being able to tell these kinds of stories with representative objects of the Industrial Age will be something hard to find in Canada. I think when the time comes that Canadians want to know and understand their ancestors of that era, the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry will be of national significance.”

For McNabb, the most satisfying comments that visitors have said repeatedly is that they’ve learned more about Nova Scotia in this museum than in any of the others they been in.

She is proud of the exhibits and collection. “For me, the Museum of Industry is about work and about workers. And it’s about Nova Scotia. It’s not about technology so much as how technology affects how people work and how that changes over time.”

Now retired, McNabb will stay closely connected to Nova Scotia’s industrial heritage in some way.

“My ‘Eureka’ moment was while attending university and I discovered the dramatic industrial history of Glace Bay, which I hadn’t learned in school — the dramatic strikes and companies trying to starve the miners back to work. It really upset me that we have these communities, like Stellarton, that had these dramatic histories and all you’re seeing is what is left. It’s important that we understand what people we descend from went through. I was totally driven by this notion that I wanted to make Nova Scotia’s industrial history understandable and appreciated by Nova Scotia, and especially people who come from, or whose parents come from, industrial communities.”

Mission accomplished.

McNabb’s legacy is an entire museum dedicated to helping understand the struggles and triumphs of the province’s industrial history.