fbpx A tribute to Pr John Beetlestone | Ecsite

A tribute to Pr John Beetlestone

Pr John Beetlestone

Professor John Beetlestone MBE, the founding Director of Techniquest died earlier this year at the age of 84, and his legacy is one that the science centre sector will want to remember. Not only was he the first person in the UK to establish a science centre in its own purpose-built premises (in 1995), he was one of a small group of pioneers but for whom there might never have been any science centres in Britain at all.

The idea of setting up a hands-on science centre had been buzzing around in Prof Beetlestone’s mind since a visit to Evoluon in the Netherlands in the 1970s - but it was a meeting at the Science Museum in London in 1984 that provided the opportunity for which he had been waiting. Here it emerged that one of the Sainsbury family trusts was planning to allocate some funds to establish Regional Science Centres. During the return journey he decided, as he put it, that this was the moment to “put up or shut up”. He was successful in obtaining £60k which enabled him to set up Techniquest Phase 1 in 1986.

‘Prof’, as he was always known to his staff, had three important criticisms of what he saw in the formal education system in the UK

  • it was geared to the needs of teachers, and didn't put the student first. This was to be student-led education
  • it always found reasons for not doing things. This was to be a ‘can-do’ organisation
  • the physical environment in schools was scruffy. Techniquest was always to look as if it had opened yesterday.

From very beginning Prof was wise enough to appreciate that a science centre could only succeed if it could play the delicate game of responding at the same time to a wide range of stakeholders. When he began discussions about the custom-built premises in Cardiff Bay it was all to do with urban regeneration, but at the same time he was assuring teachers that it would be a great resource for them, making sure that the politicians thoroughly understood the potential of the enterprise (and also its costs), that it would help to supply the scientists and engineers of the future, that it would provide a showcase for the applications of scientific research, that ‘science for all’ was an entitlement as part of our culture – oh, and by the way, “the public must to love us”. Let’s be sure we have lots of families visiting during weekends and holidays to help pay the bills. It was his panoramic vision coupled with a clear sense of purpose that brought Techniquest into existence, and developed it to a point that during the 1990’s it could confidently advertise itself as “the UK’s leading science discovery centre”.

Techniquest was host to the Ecsite Conference in November 1995 when 260 people from 25 countries attended and John Beetlestone served on the Ecsite Board for several years in the early 90s.

Prof Beetlestone inspired great loyalty and respect. He was clearly a man with a mission, and you were going to help him achieve it. He picked his people wisely, and then trusted them to get on with things - but woe betide you if you didn't. He had an acute eye for detail, but he was not a micromanager. He had an appreciation of style, but was never pretentious. He was a passionate internationalist, but he knew that the home audience mattered most of all. He recognised the talents in others, and wasn't afraid to employ people with skills that were different from his own. So he not only developed ideas, he developed people - whether by employing them, by setting up partnerships with them or even by ensuring that there was an MSc programme for young professionals in the field. His legacy is more than a set of exhibits within a building, it is a professional nursery which allowed very large numbers of people to realise the potential they never knew they had.

Colin Johnson

Director, Techniquest, 1997-2004

Based on an obituary written for the Newsletter of the British Interactive Group and is published here with their permission


  • John Beetlestone
  • Techniquest
  • obituary