Margareta Biörnstad, in 1987, became the first woman in Sweden to be appointed director general of the National Heritage Board. She played a leading role in efforts to incorporate matters of cultural heritage into social planning-, organisational-, and law-making processes.
Margareta Biörnstad was born in Stockholm in 1928. She was the daughter of the Social Democratic party politician Per-Edvin Sköld and his wife, Edit née Persson. Margareta Biörnstad spent her childhood in Ålsten, Bromma, during which time her father not only served as minister of agriculture, but also as minister of trade, minister of defence, and minister of finance. Margareta Biörnstad had three older brothers: Nils, Per, and Lars. All of them attained high-ranking civil service positions. Nils became a chief in the military, Per served, amongst other things, as managing director of what was then Statsföretag AB (later Procordia AB) and then as marshal of the realm, whilst Lars became chief director of Skolöverstyrelsen (SÖ, now called Skolverket).
During Margareta Biörnstad’s school years and higher education she was a sprinter and an orienteer. She served as a patrol leader and “blåvingeledare” within Sveriges Flickors Scoutförbund (now known as Svenska Scoutförbundet, Swedish guide and scout federation). Her leadership qualities were apparent from early on in her life.
Margareta Biörnstad matriculated in 1947 in the natural sciences section of Bromma högre allmänna läroverk (advanced general school) and she went on to read a foundational legal course then known as “proppen” at Stockholms högskola (now Stockholm university). In 1951 she gained her Bachelor of Arts degree in history, Nordic and comparative archaeology, and history of art.
Her main focus became archaeology and as a student she had already participated in several of the major Nordic archaeological digs in northern Norway and on Jutland, which brought archaeologists from across the globe together after the Second World War. The bonds formed between these people, both as colleagues and friends, spanned both generational and national lines and were significant for developments in knowledge and methodology. It also laid the foundations for continued close Scandinavian cooperation within the sphere of cultural heritage.
Margareta Biörnstad met the man who became her husband during her student years. Arne Biörnstad was also an archaeologist and went on to work within the museum world. The couple married in November 1952 and they had three children together: Lena, born in 1956, Svante, born in 1958, and Lotta, born in 1964. Family was important to Margareta Biörnstad and combining work and the home was a priority for her. In her later role as director she placed great importance on supporting both male and female colleagues who faced similar challenges.
In 1955 Margareta Biörnstad gained her licentiate in archeology, thereby completing her archaeological studies. That same year she gained a fulltime appointment at Riksantikvarieämbetets Fornminnesavdelning (Swedish national heritage board archaeology department). Up until that point, whilst undertaking her studies, she had worked on an hourly contract at Historiska museet and at Stockholms stadsmuseum, now known as Stadsmuseet i Stockholm. She had also participated in the archaeological digs at Södra Spånga ahead of the construction of the suburbs of Vällingby, Grimsta, and Råcksta. The items found during the digs served as the basis of her licentiate dissertation on Iron Age finds in Spånga.
Her job within the archaeology department involved managing the archaeological and ethnological investigations which preceded the extensive hydroelectric expansions in the Norrland rivers. She was in charge of this project during the 1962–1964 period after which she transferred to the cultural heritage conservation department.
The need for new forms of collaboration between various public interest groups had become increasingly apparent. The so-called “fysiska riksplaneringen” (FRP) was introduced as the new way forward, which also created new demands for knowledge of Swedish cultural milieus to form the foundation of this planning. New state enterprises such as Planverket (Statens planverk, now Boverket) and Statens naturvårdsverk (now Naturvårdsverket, Swedish environmental protection agency) were set up and Riksantikvarieämbetet was given completely new roles as a sister branch of these enterprises, serving as a central agency for cultural heritage conservation. Margareta Biörnstad was the driving force in this new agency.
At the same time reforms were being introduced to the national cultural policy, eventually known as the 1974 cultural policy. The regional section of cultural heritage conservation was included within the framework of these reforms. Margareta Biörnstad held a key position as expert within the formal enquiry called MUS 65, a position which required courage, intellectual clarity, and a strategic overview. The existing practise left regional cultural heritage conservation in the hands of regional museums which were headed by county cultural heritage directors. The MUS 65 enquiry proposed that responsibility should instead be transferred to the county administrative boards. This caused deep controversy and strong criticism from the regional museums. The government opted for a compromise whereby the county administrative boards would take on a solitary county cultural heritage director who would share responsibility for county cultural heritage conservation with the county museum. The role of these museums as independent cultural institutions was emphasised. Although state funding of the museums was heavily increased, it was the newly-established Statens kulturråd (Swedish arts council) that took over the responsibility from Riksantikvarieämbetet for delegating and monitoring these funds.
This MUS 65 compromise influenced Margareta Biörnstad’s role as head of Riksantikvarieämbetet in many ways. The regional delegation of roles and responsibilities was unclear and she expended a lot of effort and energy in clarifying this and finding workable options. It is largely thanks to Margareta Biörnstad that, in general, cultural heritage conservation was strengthened despite the disorganised government approach. She pushed for and insisted on strategic coordination.
As the main person responsible for regional matters within the central agency Margareta Biörnstad was then appointed chief curator, a position which also entailed serving as the director general’s deputy. Roland Pålsson had been appointed director general in 1972 just as the reforms began at Riksantikvarieämbetet. Pålsson thus managed these reforms with Margareta Biörnstad as his expert right-hand woman. It was thanks to her that the internal reforms gained the necessary footing in the organisation to allow the transformation of the old specialised agency into a modern agency.
Margareta Biörnstad implemented a series of different initiatives in her role as chief curator, including her particular interest in industrial heritage conservation. This eventually led to the establishment of the international organisation called The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH). She also instigated the national mapping of archaeological remains in Sweden’s medieval towns. The research project, called Medeltidsstaden, gained wide support and ran continuously for twenty years producing a comprehensive report on the towns.
Particular mention must be made of the so-called European year of building conservation of 1975. Thanks to Margareta Biörnstad’s efforts this became a powerful display of support for building conservation which had long been neglected in Sweden up to that point. A few years later, in 1982, a special building conservation grant was introduced within the national cultural budget, thereby fulfilling a longstanding reform aim. The building conservation grant was increased and expanded in 1992 when the lending institution tied to decontaminating buildings of cultural-historical significance was transformed into a pure funding service.
Margareta Biörnstad succeeded Roland Pålsson to the position of director general in 1987. By this time she had already, through her role as chief curator, prepared the way for continued progressive and enthusiastic cultural milieu conservation which she, as the most highly respected boss, could carry on. Margareta Biörnstad’s abilities were also applied to several official roles as a member of various boards and committees. She was a member of Humanistiskt-samhällsvetenskapliga forskningsrådet (HSFR, Humanities and social sciences research council), Svenska Turistföreningen (STF, Swedish tourist association), and H.M. Konungens Råd för mark och byggnadsfrågor (H.M. the king’s council for land and building matters).
Margareta Biörnstad did not allow her retirement in 1992 to slow her down. She took on several new official roles, such as serving as a member of the board of Stockholm university and Riksbankens Jubileumsfonds områdesgrupp för konst och gestaltning, and as chair of the board for Livrustkammaren (royal armoury), Skokloster castle, and Hallywyllska museet. As the war in Bosnia drew to a close it was difficult to access cultural heritage there and colleagues within the cultural heritage world were desperate for support and help. Margareta Biörnstad then took an active role in setting up a trust called Kulturarv utan Gränser (cultural heritage without borders), for which she served as the first chair during the turbulent years following the end of the Bosnian war. The main aim of the trust was to save and protect both material and non-material cultural heritage threatened by war, natural disasters, negligence, poverty, or political and social conflict.
Margareta Biörnstad continued, right up until the end of her days, to impart of her knowledge to the next generations. In 2006 she published her comprehensive overview of the Norrland hydroelectric constructions, Kulturminnesvård och vattenkraft 1942-1980. As late as 2015, aged 87, Margareta Biörnstad presented an insightful summary of Kulturminnesvården’s growth during the 1900s entitled Kulturminnesvård. A mark of her importance, the breadth of her activities, and the respect she engendered from her peers is seen in the two honorary doctorates she was awarded. One was awarded by Lund university in 1980 within the humanities and the other, when she was made an honorary doctor of the Gothenburg Chalmers University of Technology in 1994, was in the natural sciences and technology. Margareta Biörnstad also received other merits, including H.M. Konungens medal of the 12th degree in the Order of the Seraphim, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities’ large gold medal and the European Archaeological Heritage Prize.
Margareta Biörnstad died in 2019.