In the rich history of what we now call the Science Museum Group, I can think of no other director who did as much to shape our story as Dame Margaret Weston.
As the first woman to be appointed to lead a national museum, Dame Margaret laid the foundations for the Science Museum Group, overseeing a significant expansion from its origins in the Science Museum in London.
In her thirteen years as director, she demonstrated an understanding far ahead of many of her contemporaries of the importance of spreading cultural opportunities beyond London.
On her first day as director, Dame Margaret was in York, announcing that the historic city would become home to the National Railway Museum. The museum duly opened just two years later in 1975, allowing visitors to explore iconic locomotives and the past, present and future of the railways.
The museum will soon celebrate its 50th birthday, with an ambitious £55 million project to cements its place as the world’s railway museum.
Dame Margaret presided over the acquisition of a former RAF airfield at Wroughton, near Swindon in Wiltshire, in 1980, enabling vast objects such as large aircraft, trams and even an inert nuclear missile to be added to the Science Museum Group Collection.
Last year the National Collections Centre, as it is now known, celebrated its 40th birthday and in just a few years’ time it will welcome public tours, school and research visits to a state-of-the-art collection management facility which will house much of the collection.
In 1983, Dame Margaret established the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford (known then as the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television). It opened with the UK’s largest cinema screen and the country’s first IMAX cinema along with a remit to explore the art and science of the image.
Dame Margaret was born on 7 March 1926 in Gloucestershire. After becoming a Chartered Electrical Engineer aged 28, she joined the Science Museum in 1955. The museum was to be her home for the next three decades.
In 1967, she was appointed Keeper of the Department of Museum Services, the first female Keeper in the museum’s history, and six years later was promoted to the top job.
Other highlights under Dame Margaret’s leadership include the arrival of more than 100,000 objects from Sir Henry Wellcome’s Museum Collection in 1976 on long-term loan, forever changing the Science Museum from a museum of technology and physical sciences to one that also embraced medicine and biomedical research.
The creation of two large galleries in 1980 and 1981 (Glimpses of Medical History and The Science and Art of Medicine) to display these objects invigorated our own collecting in this area. The Group now cares for around 150,000 medical items, with thousands of these displayed in Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries, the world’s largest medical galleries.
Dame Margaret also preserved Concorde 002 for the nation, and it is now displayed on our behalf at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, Somerset.
She described how the museum acquired Concorde, saying: ‘I had a telephone call – it was all telephone calls in those earlier days, not emails – and the man didn’t give his name or his department. But he just said, do you want Concorde 002? It’s coming to the end of its test service. And I said, well I want to preserve it but I have no place to put it. But yes I’ll take it.’
Dame Margaret became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1979 and a Fellow of the Museums Association (FMA) in 1984. In 1986 she retired as Director of the Science Museum and was presented with a motorbike as a retirement gift from museum staff. It was a directorship marked by ambitious collecting, regional expansion and her great devotion to education.
Dame Margaret was modest about her enormous achievements, preferring to credit her ‘amazingly productive’ team, as she did in this short film in 2012, reflecting on her time at the helm of the national’s leading group of science museums.
In recognition of her work to inspire younger generations with science and strengthening international relationships, Dame Margaret was awarded a Science Museum Fellowship by our Chairman, Dame Mary Archer in 2018, joining the likes of the first British astronaut Dr Helen Sharman and the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
In her long and distinguished life, Dame Margaret Weston may never have used the phrase ‘levelling up’. But in bringing national museums to Bradford and York and opening a third significant site outside of London, she embodied the spirit of that modern phrase.
As a woman she showed the way by breaking through barriers of the time, but it was in establishing the nation’s first truly national museum group that she truly broke the mould.