The National World War I Museum in Kansas City is beautiful, moving and horrifying. It’s a lesson in history and a warning to a world bent on repeating past mistakes. It’s a military museum which doesn’t glorify war and a place every American — particularly anyone who holds or hopes to hold public office — should visit.
From the minute you drive up the long drive to the site, the experience is impressive. Originally there was only a World War I Memorial, the “Liberty Memorial,” with a 217-foot tower flanked by two buildings, the Memory Hall and the Exhibit Hall.
Guarding the terrace are two veiled sphinxes. The Memorial sits on a hill overlooking Kansas City to the north.
World War I was the first global conflagration. To honor the men and women who served and died in the war, the community raised more than $2.5 million in just 10 days. The idea surfaced in November, 1918, two weeks after the Armistice. The Memorial was completed and dedicated eight years later.
Decades passed and the Memorial was closed due to deterioration of the courtyard. Kansas Citians again rallied — not just to restore the Memorial but to add an expanded museum which opened in 2006. In 2014, recognized by Congress, the complex was renamed the “National World War I Museum and Memorial.”
The museum is underground — beneath the Memorial. Visitors enter into a lobby facing a glass bridge. Beneath the bridge is a field of poppies, each of the 9,000 flowers representing 1,000 combatant deaths. Inside the museum proper, your first stop should be the introductory film, “A World on Edge.” The 12-minute video begins with a survey of conditions in Europe leading up to the war.
The Industrial Revolution had changed the way people lived and worked. Rural dwellers moved to cities to share in the new prosperity — but struggled to find housing and work. Communities which before had been loyal to a monarch now found new loyalties in ethnicity and culture. Nationalism was on the rise. Countries felt they had to expand to survive. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg, was the match that lit the dry tinder of discontent. And countries scrambled to take sides.
There were many factors involved and the video sums up the result with, “No one can explain why it happened, which may be, in the end, the best explanation for why it did.” It is impossible to watch this video without the realization that history can, and does, repeat itself and rash decisions can have dire consequences.
In the main exhibit area a detailed timeline not only describes the course of the war militarily but also explores diplomatic efforts and the effects of war on society. Many exhibits involve personal stories and observations from the time.
Artifacts include arms and uniforms, historical photographs and personal effects. Trenches have been recreated. Because of stalemate, both sides in the conflict dug into positions which they sometimes occupied for considerable periods of time. By 1917, 35,000 miles of trenches extended from the English Channel across Belgium and northern France to the Swiss border.
The first major area of displays covers the war from the beginning in 1914-1917. Exhibits cover not only land aspects of combat but the war in the air and at sea.
In the next area, the Kemper Horizon Theater, guests sit on long benches overlooking a life-size diorama of soldiers marching through mud and explosions. On the opposite wall are projected images and videos of America’s reluctance to become involved and the ultimate acceptance of the necessity of going to war. The last major portion of the museum is concerned with 1917-1919 — from the time America became involved in the war to its ending.
Interactive areas include listening stations where visitors can listen to audios and oral histories.
Several large, table-like displays feature more history and opportunities to participate in decision-making scenarios. Younger visitors immediately catch on to how these fascinating apparatuses work — I had to ask for help! The museum also supplies special family gallery guides to younger guests providing questions and activities like a scavenger hunt, quizzes and puzzles.
A thorough visit to the museum could take up most of your day. I suggest starting early. Buy your ticket then go back outside to take in the view from the top of the tower. Lines will be shorter then. The elevator goes almost to the top but there are stairs the last part of the way.
The museum has a great café — the Over There Café — which pays homage to Army food with entrees including chipped beef on toast and Army goulash. Never fear, they also have great sandwiches, salads, soups and flatbread pizzas for those who don’t want that much reality.
Your ticket is good for two consecutive days so you don’t have to see it all in one day. But it’s truly worth all the time you can give it. If you go on a Wednesday, all tickets are $7 — a nice savings. Check the museum website at www.theworldwar.org for complete information.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond travel writer.