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Flanagan, Noel Joseph (1917–2009)

by John Farquharson

When Noel Flanagan took over as director of the Australian War Memorial in January 1975, he brought a wind of change that blew away what then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam described as its ‘fusty image’. His program of renewal set it on a path of revitalisation that laid the groundwork for what it has become today – one of the nation’s most vibrant and respected institutions.

In some quarters, Flanagan, who has died in Canberra aged 91, was seen as a surprising choice. He was the first ‘outsider’ ever to be appointed director of the Memorial, bucking the tradition of the assistant director usually being groomed to take over the top job. Moreover, as a public servant for most of his working life, he had no military history qualifications and his only knowledge and experience of museums was a study tour he had undertaken in America in 1974, after completing an appointment as deputy commissioner-general of the Australian pavilion at the Spokane Exposition USA. That experience and the entrepreneurial flair he had shown at the US Exposition, probably clinched the appointment for Flanagan.

Noel Joseph Flanagan was born on Christmas Day 1917 in Tocumwal, NSW, on the River Murray, where his father was the proprietor of the town’s general store. The eldest of a family of five – three boys and two girls – Flanagan attended the local convent school, before going on to St Patrick’s College, Ballarat. He left school believing he had a vocation for the priesthood but, after undergoing some initial training, decided the ordained life was not for him.

Seeking other employment in 1937, he turned to the Public Service, and, like so many others who entered the service in those pre-war days, he went to the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) and became a part-time student at Melbourne University, graduating as a Batchelor of Commerce. In 1939, he transferred to the Department of Air before enlisting in the RAAF in 1942 and becoming a Liberator bomber pilot.

A quirk of fate, which in the event saved his life, prevented him from having combat experience. He and his crew were about to leave on a posting to Morotai, but within hours of departure, he was rushed into hospital with a gangrenous appendix. After arriving in Morotai, the Liberator was sent on July 5, 1945, to bomb a Japanese position near Balikpapan, Borneo, when it was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and blew up.  There were no survivors. The loss of that plane and its crew resonated with Flanagan all his life. He vowed that the efforts of those who had died should ‘never be forgotten while Australia remained a nation’. His War Memorial appointment put him in a position to fulfil his pledge in a way he had not expected.

After being discharged from the RAAF in 1945, Flanagan went back to the Public Service. His career path there was fairly typical of any middle-order public servant until the Spokane Exposition appointment. This offered scope for him to exercise his talents, while also suiting his outgoing personality. His success in that role was undoubtedly a determinant in him being plucked from the Department of the Special Minister of State, where he was an assistant secretary, to take charge of the War Memorial.

But he soon found he faced a challenging task that was not going to be easy. Although the Government had sanctioned building extensions to the Memorial in the late 1960s, as an institution, it was in a run-down state when Flanagan was appointed. He found that the small staff had settled into a comfortable groove, were not up to coping adequately with preserving its priceless relics, and resistant to change. The art works alone, worth some $40 million, were at considerable risk, while some collections were not displayed at all, and those that were displayed were not always presented to their best advantage.

He recognised that much hard work, extra staff and money would be needed to restore it to a place of eminence in the museum world. But, as well as parsimonious politicians, Flanagan had to battle a Public Service Board that had no real understanding of the Memorial’s dual role to ‘be a place of commemoration of Australia’s war dead, a museum and a major archive of the records of war’. Nor did they appreciate the need for it to have a fully professional staff of conservators, curators, historians, librarians and archivists.

Against that background, Flanagan didn’t wait to work himself into his new role. At his first meeting with the Memorial’s board, just a month after taking over, he walked them through the galleries pointing out their deficiencies and weaknesses and stressing the need for corrective measures. According to Michael McKernan, in his history of the Memorial 1917-1990, some board members were ‘mildly shocked and surprised’ at Flanagan’s action – a ‘newcomer tearing strips off the place’. However, they endorsed his proposed changes, including an organisational restructuring.  

His aim was to boost the Memorial’s performance and see it take its place as a modern museum. But he was also mindful of its commemorative function. As an ex-serviceman he had an empathy with the Memorial, regarding it as ‘one of the most important expressions of Australian nationalism that we have’. 

In his eight years’ stewardship Flanagan didn’t see all his proposed changes realised. Nevertheless, great advances had been made. Storage and conservation laboratories had been built in the Canberra suburb of Mitchell; money had been provided for a revitalisation of some of the display areas, though much remained to be done; publications had been updated, staff numbers had more than doubled, funding had been obtained, not only for acquisitions, but also for academic historians to research military history, and an annual military history conference was started. Another significant innovation was the establishment a corps of volunteer guides to show visitors around the displays and explain them. Though his attempt to have the Memorial’s name changed to Australian War Memorial Museum failed, Flanagan and the board were more successful in winning greater autonomy for it.

Above all, Flanagan wanted to take the Memorial to the people. To that end he initiated travelling exhibitions, enabling people throughout the country to gain some appreciation of the unique character of the War Memorial and the vast array of relics, visual displays, art, photography and literature held within its walls. One measure of the greater outreach attained by the memorial under Flanagan was that visitor numbers went from about 700,000 to over a million, well ahead of visitors to any other institution, museum or gallery at that time.

However, Flanagan could not have achieved what he did at the Memorial without the backing of the board. He was also fortunate in having a good working relationship with the board chairman, Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Daly, as well as a supportive Minister in Bob Ellicott, QC. Though he was not able to wring all the changes he had sought at the outset, Flanagan’s efforts undoubtedly enhanced its status and won it new respect in fulfilling its role as memorial and museum. But, as McKernan points out, Flanagan had his shortcomings, noting that towards the end of his eight-year tenure his enthusiasm for change became blunted, while staff relations were never his strong point.

Nevertheless, when he retired on his 65th birthday in December 1982, Flanagan left a Memorial that could look to the future with much more confidence and a greater degree of independence than when he took over.

He leaves his wife, Dell, who he married in April 1953, a son, four daughters and their families.

Noel Joseph Flanagan, born December 25, 1917; died February 14, 2009.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 18 February 2009
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 February 2009
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 March 2009

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Flanagan, Noel Joseph (1917–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/flanagan-noel-joseph-386/text387, accessed 9 December 2019.

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