25 March 2022

Former War Memorial director Brendon Kelson dies

| Ian Bushnell
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Brendon Kelson walking with other men

Brendon Kelson, left, with former prime minister Paul Keating at the War Memorial. Photo: AWM.

Former Australian War Memorial director Brendon Kelson has died, aged 86.

Considered instrumental in the repatriation of the unknown Australian soldier killed on the Western Front and now buried in a tomb at the center of the Memorial, in recent times Mr Kelson became a vocal critic of the $500 million AWM redevelopment.

He was one of 83 prominent Australians to sign an open letter via the Honest History website, saying that the extension “cannot be justified, they show the Memorial is being given preference over other national institutions, and the money could be better spent”.

Mr Kelson also said the project had created a historic crisis in the national capital and its story.

Mr Kelson was Memorial Director from 1990 to 1994. Before that he was the Memorial’s senior assistant director for eight years, having joined the institution in 1982 after serving as the founding secretary and manager of the National Gallery of Australia from 1977 to 1982.

The Memorial said the Council and staff were saddened to hear of Mr Kelson’s passing.

“In his time at the helm of the Memorial Brendon made significant contributions including overseeing the interment of the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier,” the Memorial said.

“Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time and to his colleagues who worked with him at the Memorial.”

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He had a distinguished career in the Australian Public Service that included a role as assistant secretary for cultural policy at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (1973 to 1977) under both prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.

He was secretary of the Commonwealth Literary Fund and Art Advisory Board (1970 to 1973) and served on councils and associations for Australian museums.

In 1993, as Memorial Director, Mr Kelson traveled to Adelaide Cemetery, near Villers-Bretonneux in France, where the Commonwealth Graves Commission had identified four resting places of unknown soldiers for possible repatriation.

The remains of one of those graves were exhumed and, after a five-day journey to Canberra, were laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial on Remembrance Day 1993.

Then prime minister Paul Keating delivered a eulogy for the soldier at the nationally-televised funeral ceremony.

Mr Kelson’s son Marcus posted on Twitter: “My beautiful dad, Brendon Kelson, husband of Jenne, father of myself, and my brother Adrian, former husband of my late mother Patricia, has left us for good. He is no longer in pain and in the end everything was about peace and love. Rest in Peace.”

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Honest History editor David Stephens said Mr Kelson had long experience in government and had a passion for protecting Australia’s national heritage.

“He channelled these into the fight to protect the War Memorial,” Dr Stephens said.

“It is a judgment on the state of our politics that this vainglorious and destructive project is going ahead despite the strong arguments against it.”

The Medical Association for Prevention of War posted: “All of us at MAPW send condolences to family and friends of Brendon Kelson. Brendon was a valued friend and staunch ally; a person of great integrity. It’s been a privilege to be alongside him in his work to protect the integrity of the Australian War Memorial. Vale.”

Funeral service details are yet to be released.

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