John Tanner

Founding Director of the RAF Museum
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The Independent Online

John Tanner was the founding Director of the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, and against all the odds made an improbable success of the venture, going on to create the Battle of Britain Museum, the Cosford Aero-Space Museum and the Bomber Command Museum.

John Benedict Ian Tanner, museum director: born London 2 January 1927; Curator, Librarian` and Tutor, RAF College 1953-63; Extra-Mural Lecturer in History of Art, Nottingham University 1959-63; Director, RAF Museum 1963-88; Director, Battle of Britain Museum 1978-88; Director, Cosford Aero-Space Museum 1978-88; CBE 1979; Director, Bomber Command Museum 1982-88; Honorary Archivist and Senior Research Fellow, Pembroke College, Oxford 1982-96, Supernumerary Fellow 1996-2004; Professor, The Polish University 1987-94 (Emeritus); married 1953 April Rothery (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1972), 1991 Andrea Duncan; died London 18 May 2004.

John Tanner was the founding Director of the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, and against all the odds made an improbable success of the venture, going on to create the Battle of Britain Museum, the Cosford Aero-Space Museum and the Bomber Command Museum.

The idea of founding a national aeronautical museum occurred to him when, in the early 1960s, as Curator and Tutor at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in Lincolnshire he established a modest and temporary one-room museum there. The collection consisted of little more than uniforms and medals, but the exhibits were interestingly sourced and included loans from Buckingham Palace including the RAF uniform of King George VI.

The popularity of this temporary exhibition stimulated Tanner in 1962 to write a memorandum to the Ministry of Defence about the advisability of creating a national air museum. The ministry's response was guarded, but Tanner was invited to become the "protodirector" of a future museum and was offered a salaried post and an office. However, his new position came with a stark warning from the ministry: "There is no collection, there is no building, there is no site and there is no money." Tanner would have to obtain all four by his own efforts, which resulted in a spectacular fund-raising success; and the museum was opened on time and under budget in 1972, in spite of the fact that the strain had caused him to have a major heart attack.

His remarkable achievement was founded on persuading individuals from all over the world to support the venture. Throughout his planning he derived great support from many members of the Royal Family, especially the Queen Mother. She commented that the RAF Museum was a great institution and that its greatest treasure was its director. The acquisition of a collection was smoothed by the involvement of such figures as Sir Thomas Sopwith, Sir Douglas Bader and Sir Arthur Harris.

The Battle of Britain Museum was opened at Hendon in 1978, the Bomber Command Museum following five years later, and the Cosford Aero-Space Museum was opened at RAF Cosford, in Shropshire, in 1979.

Tanner was primarily a scholar and ensured that the museum collection included a dynamic archive department. His skill in management also created a happy relationship with the unionised workforce at a time when this was not the case with all national museums. This harmony enabled Hendon to cope easily with up to 700,000 visitors a year. He was appointed CBE in 1979. Tensions within the MoD ensured that he was denied the knighthood that many thought was his by right.

John Benedict Ian Tanner was born in London in 1927; his father, Arthur Tanner, an owner of garages and filling stations, died when his son was still an infant. Young John was largely brought up by his maternal grandfather. His early education was unstructured, and interrupted by a dose of rheumatic fever at the age of 12, which prevented his taking up a scholarship at Westminster School. Lying about his age, and persuading a friendly doctor to pass him A1, he applied to join the Royal Naval Air Reserve in 1944. To his astonishment, he was sent to the coalmines of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire as a "Bevin boy", where he learnt all about the rigours of life at the coalface.

In the late 1940s Tanner qualified as a librarian, and, by way of Reading and Kensington libraries and Leighton House Art Gallery and Museum, in 1953 became Curator, Librarian and Tutor at the RAF College Cranwell, serving for a decade and attaining the honorary rank of Group Captain. At the same time he lectured in History of Art at Nottingham University of Nottingham, from which he gained a PhD in 1960.

For the next quarter-century he not only devoted himself to his air museums but advised other countries who wished to create similar museums, being acknowledged as the inspirer of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. His first love was history and he pursued his academic interests. For 14 years he was Honorary Archivist and Senior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was himself to fund the appointment of a professional archivist for three years, and he remained at his death a Supernumerary Fellow.

A committed Christian all his life, Tanner was brought up an Anglican and became an Officer of the Order of St John in 1964, being promoted to Knight in 1978. He was energetic in ecumenical efforts, particularly in seeking closer ties between the Order and its Roman Catholic counterpart, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Recognition of his success came in the form of honours from the Holy See and the Order of Malta, including two papal knighthoods. In 1993, disillusioned by the public statements of the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church; he worshipped regularly at the Brompton Oratory, known as a gentle and welcoming figure.

He suffered from poor sight following cataract surgery in 1989, but he continued to be as entertaining and hospitable a companion as ever. His travelling schedule was not diminished, and he was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera in New York when Wagner was being performed. His books on diverse subjects such as aeronautics, history of art and genealogy reached a wide audience - he still received a heavy postbag about his 1979 Reader's Digest "guide to genealogy", Who's Famous in Your Family? - and he was formidably well informed on wine, heraldry and cricket.

Robert Noel