Most schoolchildren will tell you that World War I – The Great War, the War to End all Wars – was started when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914. They aren’t wrong, though they aren’t exactly right, since that lone fact doesn’t tell all of the tale. The assassination might have been the first domino to topple, but it was not the cause, and at the National World War I Museum they firmly believe in showing the whole story. The first room a visitor enters is a movie theater, which shows a 12-minute prologue explaining the tangle of events and and attitudes that led to the global explosion we know as World War I.
Of course, before entering the theater you must first buy a ticket and then view the poppy field in the atrium as you walk across the glass bridge.
Scattered lines from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” ran through my mind as I gazed at the gray floor a story below, punctuated by a galaxy of orange-red. One of the blue-vested volunteers saw us looking and came over to tell us that each one of the poppies represents 1,000 soldiers lost in World War I; there are 9,000 poppies in that field, for a total of 9,000,000,000 deaths, a number that encompasses casualties on both sides. He talked about the civilian casualties – again, on both sides, the doctors and nurses and volunteers – that bring the total above ten million. His face grew somber as he added, “And twenty-five years later, we did it all over again.”
That ‘we’ catches the attention. Talking with the volunteer further, you realize he’s using the ‘we’ to refer to all the countries involved in WWI and WWII – and speaking of it with regret.
So often, museums that focus on a particular war or event present a bias to its patrons: Maybe they don’t know they’re doing it; maybe their financial supporters have ‘paid’ to have that view expressed; maybe they genuinely believe in the rightness of their position and so they want to encourage other to think the same way. But that’s not the case at the National World War I Museum, and maybe the way the museum was founded explains why.
Many families have a long and proud history of military service. Two weeks after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, at 11:11 AM, Kansas City folk had decided to do something to honor their fallen, and honor what every soldier Over There had fought for. The idea of the Liberty Memorial was born, and volunteers raised 2.5 million dollars in a mere ten days. And that was in 1918, don’t forget. In today’s money, that would be roughly $34 million. The Liberty Memorial – the Liberty Memorial Tower, the Exhibit and Memory Halls, the Sphinxes of Memory and Future, and the Great Frieze on the north wall – was dedicated on November 11, 1926. But the ravages of time took their toll, and in the mid-1990s the Memorial was closed, its structure no longer safe.
Once more the proud families of Kansas City rose up in support; a limited sales-tax increase was voted in, donations were taken, and plans were made not only to revitalize the Memorial, but expand the site to include a museum in order to showcase the collection that had been building since 1920. And wonder of wonders, though this museum was designated by Congress as the National World War I Museum in 2004, not one penny of government funds has ever been accepted to maintain it. The Museum is supported by donations, it is staffed by volunteers, and those volunteers are extremely proud of the fact.
As one put it, “If we take their money, we’re obliged to show the war the way they want us to.” And their mission, boldly displayed in how they answer questions, accept heirlooms from all sides and origins, and the phrasing of the wall-placards, is to educate, not indoctrinate. Their role is to remember, and to show the War through the eyes of those who lived through it. There is no patriotic slant, no crude propaganda painting the Germans of the time as Evil Incarnate. There are only facts, from the Central Powers and Allies alike.
And oh, my heavens, one of the first things I was told – by multiple people, mind you! – was that I could take all the pictures I wanted. How many museums can you say that about?
So make the trip. It’s worthwhile, particularly this year; 2014 marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. Go see the rotating exhibits in the Memory Halls near the Sphinxes of Memory and Future. Walk over the glass floors that shield exhibits; read the quotes underfoot. Become one of the powers of the war at the interactive exhibit tables. See the crowded squalor of the trench and hear the voices; witness the movie narrated with memoirs and quotes from veterans who were there and punctuated by flashes of light, the thunder of explosions and images of clouds of mustard gas. Hear them speak of the mud.
And then remember.
National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial
Where: 100 W. 26th Street, Kansas City, MO 64108
When: From Memorial Day to Labor Day – Sunday to Saturday, 10-5: From Labor Day to Memorial Day – Tuesday to Sunday, 10-5. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day; Open on Holiday Mondays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day.
Cost: $12 for Seniors (over 65); $14 for Adults, $12 for Students (18 and older with a valid Student ID), $8 for ages 6-17 $8, and FREE for members and children under the age of 6. Discounts are available for Active Duty Military and their Families. Tickets for all ages are $7 every Wednesday. Audiotour headphones are available for $5, $3 for members.
Contact Information: (816) 888-8100
Website: theworldwar.org And they have a Facebook page