Below Ground, Under an Imposing Artifice, a Great Museum of a Terrible War
Visit the National World War I Museum
The National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is gearing up for the centennial of the Great War.
I just visited. You should, too. It’s a good experience despite the institution’s flaws.
In preparation for the first months of the centennial, the museum has opened the new exhibitions On the Brink—covering the pre-war July Crisis—and Over By Christmas which highlights the world’s growing realization that the war would last longer than a few months.
The new exhibits are a mixed bag, but the overall museum experience is a rich one.
Don’t take my word for it. Mike Vietti, marketing and communications manager for the museum, says that attendance has increased six percent over last year. Vietti adds that the museum has a variety of exhibits planned for the next half-decade, covering all aspects of the war and its immediate aftermath.
Citizens organizations in both Kansas and Missouri sponsored the museum. Construction began in 1921. The museum opened with a grand ceremony on Nov. 11, 1926. Murals in Memorial Hall depict both the groundbreaking and the opening in gorgeous detail.
The building itself is almost as interesting as the contents. There’s no better term for the Egyptian-theme structure than “imposing.” A pair of sphinxes guard the north face, sitting on either side of a grand frieze that depicts, in hieroglyphic style, the progress of man from war to peace.
From a certain angle, the museum resembles a hillside bunker, but from most vantages it doesn’t bear the faintest similarity to the fortifications of World War I. Rather, it conveys the majesty of the state, a testament of sort to the ability of the World War I combatants to mobilize vast resources in pursuit of victory.
In the mid-1990s, with the museum falling into disrepair, a major effort in the Kansas City area generated huge donations, which not only fixed the existing museum infrastructure, but effectively created a much larger museum. The refurbished facility re-opened in 2006.
Perhaps inspired by Great War trenches, there’s now more of museum underground than above.
Touring the grounds, you have to wonder if the museum commemorates the Great War, or simply the Allied—and primarily Western Allied—war effort. Bas reliefs of five Allied great captains—David Beatty, Armando Diaz, Ferdinand Foch, John Pershing and Alphonse Jacques de Dixmude, each of whom attended the groundbreaking ceremony—stand on the pathway leading to the entrance.
The absence of any German, Austrian or Turkish commanders is understandable, if a bit jarring.
Indeed, the most telling absence may be the lack of much commemoration of the Russian contribution. The presence of a Russian might have served as an inconvenient reminder of the persistence of Soviet Union, which had only—as of the groundbreaking—recently survived invasion by several of its erstwhile allies.
But Vietti argues that the museum takes a global, holistic approach, as demonstrated by its attention to the course of the war prior to U.S. intervention. He also suggests that the architecture focuses on the sorrow and tragedy of the war, rather than on the glory of Allied victory.
And it’s fair to say that the logistics of assembling a more representative group of soldiers would have been challenging. The wounds of the war were too fresh in 1921 to bring Erich Ludendorff or Mustafa Kemal to Kansas City.
It may simply have been too much of a struggle to try to spring Aleksei Brusilov, the brilliant commander who spearheaded the development of infiltration tactics, from Soviet Russia in time to attend the ceremony.
The centerpiece of the museum’s interior is the main gallery, which features a timeline of the conflict, illustrated with artifacts of industrial war. While the timeline ranges widely, the exhibits concentrate heavily on the ground war—and especially on the Western Front.
Only a couple of displays examine naval aspects of the conflict and the war in the air.
In preparation for the opening of the World War I centennial, museum curators organized the exhibit On the Brink, which recounts the months leading up to war. The exhibit pays particular attention to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and to the month between his death and the Russian mobilization that indicated war was inevitable.
Unfortunately, the exhibit is rather small and oddly placed, and seems like a missed opportunity given the magnitude of the anniversary.
It doesn’t help that On the Brink is within Memorial Hall, which contains hands-down contains the most stunning artwork in the museum. This includes a large section of the Pantheon de la Guerre, a huge painting that features thousands of individuals who contributed to the Allied war effort.
Another mural depicts the groundbreaking of the museum, including dozens of Kansas City notables. The rest of Memorial Hall features stylized, full-color maps of the Allied offensives on the Western Front in the summer and fall of 1918.
Visitors may be forgiven for barely noticing On the Brink in the midst of such an incredible display.
Of course, our interpretation of World War I has changed considerably over the years, as different understandings have developed about war guilt, the nature of operations on the Western Front, the value of U.S. intervention and the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
While many still argue that justice of the fight against the Central Powers, the course of the 20th century served to shatter the optimism of the 1920s about the impact of Allied victory.
As the greater part of the Main Gallery dates to 2006, much of the material reflects this more complex understanding of the war. The building itself, and the older exhibits in Exhibition and Memorial Halls, convey a different historical impression.
Unfortunately, the museum hours leave something to be desired. The World War I Museum is normally only open until 5:00 PM—7:00 PM on Saturdays—which makes it difficult for many who work during the day to visit.