Shaping the Visual History of the Great War
High up on a bluff, over-looking I-35, just south of downtown, lies the Liberty Memorial Monument and the National WWI Museum. The prominent limestone obelisk and platform has been an indelible part of KC’s skyline since its completion on the 11th of November, 1926. But for a large number of people in the city, the origin of its existence is still clouded in virtual anonymity. After 20 years in town, I was no different. But courtesy of an adventurous weekend visit from out of town family last October, I’m now in a great position to provide some information and encouragement to visit one of the best museums this country has to offer, right here in our own backyard.
Why Kansas City?
With the signing of the armistice in November of 1918, the hostilities of the ‘war to end all wars’ had finally come to an end. The carnage was catastrophic: including civilians, the dead numbered over 16 million and the injured 21 million. The United States late entry into the war in 1917 ‘minimized’ the number of dead and wounded to 117,000 and 206,000 respectively, but the US’s participation helped alter the old world order, vaulting it into global prominence.
A mere two weeks after the armistice, a group of Kansas Citians convened a meeting to discuss an appropriate way in which to dedicate the memories of those that lost their lives in the conflict. During a two week period in 1919, the newly formed Liberty Memorial Association led a grass- root, community driven effort, and raised over $2.5 million from across the country.
H. Van Buren Magonigle was selected as the architect, and on the 21st of November, 1921, in front of an estimated 200,000 people, the current site for the memorial was dedicated. Of note, this dedication was the first time in history all 5 leaders of the main Allied powers were together in one place.
Working in parallel with the effort for creation of the memorial, the Association also began collecting artifacts from the war. The museum in 1926 was actually called Exhibit Hall, and consisted of the two buildings that still flank the Monument. But as the decades passed, there was simply no room to house what has become the largest collection of WWI memorabilia in the country. The last four years, however, has seen that situation come to a conclusion. Through private donations, municipal bonds and a local sales tax totaling $102 million, the Ralph Appelbaum designed National World War I Museum opened its’ doors to much fanfare and critical acclaim on December 2, 2006. And it is worth every penny.
The Museum – Prelude to War through 1917
Visitors enter the museum via a long, descending ramp that brings them to heavy brass doors with the entrance hall waiting on the other side. The psychological transition from everyday life to having the opportunity to understand the gravity and scope of WWI is rather immediate. Once inside, visitors cross over the Paul Sunderland glass bridge with two visually dramatic views: the Memorial through skylights directly above; and below the bridge, 9,000 red poppies, each representing 1,000 combat fatalities.
Upon crossing the bridge, the Orientation Theater provides visitors with an excellent overview of the war and its historical context – its origins and significance as the seminal geopolitical event of the 20th century. The focus centers on how the world’s most powerful societies and colonial dependents mobilized in a global catastrophe that shaped our world we know today. It is a 12 minute video that effectively provides very relevant background for the various museums’ galleries to come.
The Prologue Gallery gives a deeper idea of what the world was like before the war and the undercurrents that were preconditions for it in 1914. It’s the place to ponder the sense of optimism and progress of European culture at its zenith of achievement, while also gaining insight into the growing economic and political forces guiding Europe from relative peace and prosperity to the catastrophe of industrialized war.
The Chronology of the War covers the roots of the conflict and the year-by-year escalation up to the armistice and the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. It is a multi-layered timeline, complete with images, graphics and small objects, which present the interwoven strands of the story: the military and diplomatic action as it unfolds and the domestic, social and cultural impacts of the war. The story is carried through eyewitness testimony of people from different nations and socio-economic classes, providing visitors individual and diverse experiences of the war.
The Immersion Galleries and the Study Collections are the most visually stunning. They are the dramatic settings for key objects, such as artillery equipment, full scale trenches, planes, weapons, uniforms, and the everyday possessions of soldiers in conflict, all placed in settings that allude to the physical and emotional landscapes of the war. They portray important situations drawn from the chronology, giving visitors a deeper understanding of the war’s dynamics by focusing on themes that span the entire narrative. Each tableau is augmented with immersive video and audio to bring the visitor in contact with some of the items listed above, along with first-person accounts connected to these objects of war.
The Museum – America Goes to War (1917 and beyond)
The Horizon Theater is the next stop. A dramatic, 100-foot wide screen comes into view, presenting guests with the question, “Should America enter the war?” What follows is an excellent 15 minute program showing America at the point of decision, on the threshold of war, and gives visitors an opportunity to experience what that meant at the time. This presentation is integrated with a full-scale depiction of “No Man’s Land”, a ravaged landscape with marching British soldiers, providing Americans with a foreboding of things to come in the event of conflict. As the presentation continues, positive outcomes of the war are balanced against a Pandora’s Box of forces and negative consequences that were unleashed.
The second half of the museum takes guests from the United States entry into the war in 1917 through the November 1918 armistice and continuing on through the peace negotiations of Versailles in 1919 (and the decision to build the Liberty Memorial). The western structure of the exhibition mirrors that of the eastern side, but the focus has clearly shifted to another of the great strengths of the collection, the American materials, both military and civilian. Arguably the museums most prized artifact, a French Renault FT-17 tank, complete with original paint, and the German artillery hole that put it out of action, also resides here. It is an inspiring narrative that documents the American war effort, the home-front and the achievements of the American Expeditionary Forces and their role in saving the Allies from possible defeat. Visitors are then taken up to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where values of American democracy and peace, as articulated by President Woodrow Wilson, established America’s commitment and good will and the start of its role as a world leader.
Even upon leaving this part of the museum, there are still more sights worthy of exploration. The Liberty Memorial Deck, for instance, contains the two original museum buildings mentioned above that house even more of the world class collection of artifacts. The entrance to the 217 foot tower is also here, providing an elevator lift to an absolutely fantastic view of the surrounding Kansas City landscape. Be sure to take note of the two adjacent and massive stone Sphinxes, Memory and Future, and comprehend their thought provoking symbolism. Viewed from the north lawn, an impressive carving by sculptor Edmond Amateis, known as the Great Frieze, depicts progress from war to peace. It is one of the largest carvings of its kind in the world, measuring 148 feet long by 18 feet tall.
For more information on all that this first class museum has to offer, check out their website at http://www.theworldwar.org, or give them a call at 816-784-1918. But my first suggestion is to go and find out in person. You will be glad you did. It is truly an educational and fascinating experience that any city in this country would be proud to have.
I would personally like to acknowledge Denise Rendina, VP of Communications for the museum, as well as the volunteer staff who can answer just about any question thrown at them. The access and information they provided was an invaluable component in the writing of this piece. My humblest thanks to you all.