Celebrating Dame Margaret Weston

Dame Margaret Weston was an influential figure who created the first truly national museum group, a woman full of vim, vigour, and a commitment to education. We look back over her relationship with the Horniman and her contribution to museums across the country.

Dame Margaret was the first woman to lead a national museum in the United Kingdom. She spent 13 years as Director of the Science Museum Group (SMG), before retiring in 1986 and joining the Horniman Museum and Gardens as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Early years

Born in Gloucestershire on 7 March 1926, Margaret was the only child of two headteachers. She was educated at Stroud High School, where she was deputy head girl.

A naturally tenacious character, Margaret is said to have detained a German bomber at her parents’ house. The story goes that in 1940, a Junkers Ju 88 bomber crashed nearby. A 14-year-old Margaret detained one of the Germans herself until her father, who served in the Home Guard, came home and arrested him.

Margaret earned her degree at the University of London and became a chartered electrical engineer at the age of 28. This practical scientific background prepared her well for an ensuing career at the SMG.

The Science Museum Group

Margaret joined the SMG in 1955, where she worked for the next three decades. In 1967, she was appointed Keeper of the Department of Museum Services, the first female keeper in the Science Museum’s history, and six years later she was made director. She served in this role for 13 years.

As the first woman to lead a national museum in the UK, Margaret will be remembered for both the impact she had at the SMG, and her impact on the wider museum sector. She believed firmly that cultural opportunities should be spread beyond London and worked tirelessly to achieve this during her tenure.

She spent her first day as Director in York, announcing that the city would soon become home to the National Railway Museum. The museum opened two years later, in 1975, and became the first national museum outside of the capital city. It will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Not only did Margaret expand the SMG geographically, but she also expanded the scope of the collections. In 1976, she oversaw the arrival of 100,000 objects added on long-term loan from the Wellcome Collection. This move forever transformed the concept of the SMG from a museum of technology and physical sciences to one that also embraced medicine and biomedical research.

In 1980, Margaret presided over the acquisition of a former RAF airfield at Wroughton, near Swindon. This meant that enormous objects, including aircraft carriers and an inactive nuclear missile, could be added to the SMG collection.

She was also responsible for the preservation of Concorde 002, now on display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovil, Somerset. Describing how the enormous aircraft came to the collection, Margaret remembers a phone call from an unnamed man. She recalled:

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.

Three years later, Margaret established the National Science and Media Museum, committed to explore the art and science of the image, in Bradford. Upon opening, it housed the UK’s largest cinema screen and the country’s first IMAX cinema.

Having chaired the SMG for over a decade, Margaret retired from the role in 1986. Her tireless commitment to the improvement and expansion of the museum sector was recognised throughout her career – she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1979 and a Fellow of the Museums Association in 1984.

Margaret loved transport of all kinds – she once drove a 1911 Rolls Royce in the London to Brighton Race and had tried her hand steering a submarine and a sailing ship. Upon her retirement, she was presented with a motorbike by staff as a gift.

At the Horniman

Never one to sit still, Margaret enjoyed a busy retirement. Among other roles, she became Chairman of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

It was in 1990 that Margaret joined the Horniman as it faced a status transition from a museum controlled by the Inner London Education Authority to an independent charitable trust funded largely by central government. Prior to retiring from SMG, she oversaw a similar status change, from civil service control to a Board of Trustees, and her experience was of clear value to the Horniman.

While Margaret was considering joining the Horniman, she came for a visit to the Museum and was shown around by then-Director David Boston. When the pair reached the Conservation Laboratory, David mentioned the newly erected Conservatory. Margaret said she would like to see it, and David told her the quickest way to get to it was to climb out of the window, which they did. This greatly amused her, and Margaret decided then to take the job as she thought it would be fun.

She liked big projects and was passionately supportive of education in museums and the use of new technology in interactive displays, despite being reticent to use a computer herself. During her tenure, the Natural History Gallery was due a redisplay, and the Centre for Understanding the Environment (or CUE), which now houses our Library, was erected to store objects in the meantime. However, plans for the redisplay were shelved when the South Hall floor started to collapse and major buildings works were required. Our current Nature + Love redisplay is the first time these works have been attempted since.

Margaret saw the Horniman through a period of great change. She worked with three of our Directors: David Boston, Michael Houlihan and Janet Vitmayer. She was supportive of the Centenary Development and application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which expanded the Museum building to include our current Music Gallery, exhibitions gallery and Gallery Square. It also remodelled the entrance to connect the Gardens more closely with the Museum, and introduced facilities including a larger café, shop and education centre, which opened in 2002.

The development, which was predicted to result in up to 250,000 visitors per year, has in fact allowed the Horniman Museum and Gardens to reach close to a million visitors per year.

Margaret’s presence as Chairman undoubtedly gave credibility to funding applications and her experience of Whitehall also enabled her to negotiate effectively with civil servants.

During her tenure, she was direct and left no doubt as to what she thought or wanted. But she was also an incredibly supportive presence and believed in nurturing junior staff. She was a force to be reckoned with; a shrewd negotiator, everyone found it hard to say no to her and she always knew the right person to contact.

Dame Margaret Weston died on 12 January 2021, at the age of 94. During her life, her work had a great impact at the Horniman and the SMG.

Alongside regional expansion, her work was defined by her ambitious collecting and devotion to education. She worked hard to inspire younger generations and to strengthen international relationships. In her approach, Margaret was direct, tough, and impatient to get on with things, which she achieved with a mixture of charm and an uncompromising attitude. She will be remembered for her boundless optimism, warmth and commitment to fun that have helped shape much-loved museums across the country.

Many thanks to Jennifer Beever and Janet Vitmayer for contributing to this article.