Farewell to John Kendall (1926-2011)

by Richard Gillespie
Publish date
30 June 2011
Comments (2)

Dr Richard Gillespie is a historian and the head of the History and Technology Department at Museum Victoria. He wrote this guest post in tribute to F. John Kendall, former Director of the Science Museum of Victoria, who died on 20 June 2011.

I never worked with John Kendall. He had retired six years before I joined the museum in 1990. But I met him at the opening of Scienceworks in 1992 and at later special events.

John Kendall John Kendall, newly appointed as Director of the Science Museum of Victoria, 1975.
Source: Museum Victoria

At John’s encouragement I would call him at home whenever I was puzzled by something in a museum file, or the file didn’t seem to tell the whole story about how we acquired an object. John could always be relied on to give me a full account of the events that might have happened 30 or more years previously with astonishing recall and accuracy. Having neatly summarised an event, John would finish off with ‘You’ll be able to find all the details in File 64F’.

John trained as an agricultural scientist at the University of Melbourne in the late 1940s, and after graduating worked at the government fruit cool stores at Melbourne’s Victoria Docks. A chance encounter led to him discovering that there was a job as an agricultural scientist vacant at the Museum of Applied Science. He knocked on the director’s door and landed the job. He would later recall: ‘I adapted instantly to the Museum environment. I was paid for doing what I loved doing’.

In what was a small institution running on a tiny budget, John’s curatorial work included designing and even building new displays. He measured and cut the backing boards for the existing showcases, and breaking with tradition, he rejected the traditional white gloss paint in favour of pink, blue and green paint. Then he sat down to cut out the letters with stencils for the headings, and type the labels.

John Kendall and Ruth Leveson John Kendall and Ruth Leveson, early 1980s.
Source: Museum Victoria

John made a huge impact on the museum’s collections, particularly by documenting and collecting significant Victorian and Australian inventions. The museum had acquired the first Australian-built aircraft, John Duigan’s 1910 biplane, back in 1920. But it was John Kendall that conducted the research that documented this landmark in Australian aviation. Happily John was able to attend the Duigan centenary celebrations held by the museum last year.

He believed passionately that as well as understanding contemporary scientific and technical principles, students and scientists alike needed to appreciate the history of scientific and technical development.

Intrigued by the fact that the museum held one of the suits of the Kelly Gang armour, John became historical detective and tracked down the other three sets of armour; one set was cast aside in the police horse stables in South Melbourne, a kind of government dumping ground for old things from which John rescued other historic artefacts.

In 1975 John became director of the Science Museum of Victoria. He was to be its last, as in 1983 the National Museum and Science Museum were merged into Museum Victoria. The consummate administrator, John wrote much of the Museums Act of 1983, and was acting director of the merged institution until a director was appointed. On his retirement he continued as a museum consultant, notably providing advice on the development of science museums in India for the Indian Government and International Council of Museums. A Rotarian for over 30 years, John chaired the local committee that organised the World Congress of Rotarians in Melbourne in 1993.

I will miss those phone conversations, but I know I will constantly encounter John’s precise and instructive notes in our museum archives, whenever I am searching for additional information about an object.

John Kendall on bike John Kendall riding his bicycle.
Source: Museum Victoria

Comments (2)

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Capt.(retd.) Victor S. Kaye OAM. 20 November, 2011 11:11
I was sorry to read of the death of Dr.Kendall whilst researching another item. I had the pleasure of knowing John during the 1960's when I served as a volunteer Astonomical demonstrator at the Melbourne Observatory,at which time I was an Airline Pilot which also allowed me to introduce John to the first DC9 Aircraft simulator in Australia.Australian Science has lost a very fine gentleman.
Desmond Kennard 8 March, 2015 15:04
During my period as Executive Director of Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, I formed a close professional relationship with John. I valued his support and wise advice. I am saddened to learn only today of his passing.
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