The National World War I Museum and Memorial and Why You Should Go There

November 3, 2015

By this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Is this blog All WWI, All the Time, or what?” This week’s post isn’t going to dissuade you from asking that question, but I’m going to keep it short, and move on to another, wholly non-WWI-related question next week.  I was going to do that this week, but I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.  Once I got there, I realized that I really need to say a few words about this museum this week instead of the Great Emu War.


Let me begin by saying: this is quite possibly the finest museum of its kind I’ve ever visited.  By “of its kind,” I do not refer to World War I museums, because, surprise, surprise! it is the only museum devoted entirely to WWI in the United States (if you’re wondering how many WWII museums there are in this country, it’s definitely more than one!).  When I say “of its kind,” I’m speaking of history museums that are devoted to a single discrete event, so the Colorado History Museum, for example, doesn’t count. 


Back to my original point though, I simply cannot say enough good things about this museum.  From the very beginning, as you walk on a glass bridge over a field of poppies, you get the feeling that you’re about to see something special.  The two short films shown at different points during the experience are pretty spectacular.  The first of these, an introduction to the era and the social and political movements that ignited the conflict, is surprisingly comprehensive for being no longer than ten minutes.  The second film, which is screened about halfway through the museum, is shown over a life-sized diorama of a blasted-out trench with soldiers trudging through the mud; this film, which, at times, incorporates the diorama into the viewing, covers the state of affairs leading up to America’s entry into the war. You’ll probably get the chills at least a couple times.  I certainly found both films to be strongly affecting. 


                 9000 poppies under the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge, each representing 10,000 who died in World War I 


There are also interactive elements towards the end of the museum walk-through: on a bank of high-tech(ish) terminals, you can design your own war memorial, study different types of planes or tanks, or learn about decrypting encoded messages.  Nearby are small booths where up to three or four people (depending on how much you like each other) can sit together in a quiet space and listen to wartime music, poetry, or excerpts from prose. 


 Examining the interactive tables


Lest you think that this is nothing but a “touchy-feely” sort of place, let me assure you that it has all of the elements of a more standard museum as well.  It has an extremely comprehensive collection of artifacts, and the themes by which they are grouped and displayed reflect both common sense and consideration.  The museum is split in two by the second film: the artifacts, displays, and explanations in the first half reflect the lead-up to the war through 1916, while those in the second half display 1917 through 1919.  A timeline of the important events of each month of the war runs along one wall throughout the entire experience.


 Various displays with the timeline in the background


Having gone through this museum twice now, there is only one thing about it I would change: just as we are given a chance to experience the writings and music of the war, I would also have loved a similar chance to explore the visual arts and propaganda of the war (I’m a visual learner and love analyzing images).


So, to sum up, this museum is:

  • Intellectual without being dry and off-putting

  • Emotional without being cloying or manipulative, and

  • Interactive without pandering

If you ever find yourself in or near Kansas City (which, come on, it’s pretty much smack dab the middle of the country, so that shouldn’t be too hard), you’d be doing yourself a great favor to visit this museum.  Maybe buy yourself a “Meet the Fokkers!” shirt at the museum store; I was certainly tempted.


The National World War I Museum and Memorial:


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