Monday, July 27, 2015

Item #1: The National WWI Museum and Memorial

The First World War.

The Great War.

Also known as...the war that was barely mentioned in high school history...never to be studied again unless your college major was history (which it probably wasn't because, let's face it...that's every parent's worst nightmare. And WHAT are you going to do with THAT, missy? Huh?? Why don't you just go ahead and change your major to liberal arts so you can send me to an early grave? Because you'll NEVER be able to afford my long-term living expenses. In case you're wondering, when you tell your parents you would like to be a theater major, the response is almost exactly the same.) But if you do hold a History degree, good for you because it means you are probably quite passionate about history and you are exactly the person I want to teach my son.

The WWI Museum and Memorial was designed, seemingly, by some very passionate History majors. It's ranked #1 on Trip Advisor for Things to Do in Kansas City, MO. Therefore, it seemed fitting that it would be our first stop after lunch at City Market in Kansas City. We were traveling without Blue for the day, which worked out perfectly. Although this museum is not one shrouded in sensitivity and fresh wounds (like trying to navigate the 9/11 Museum with him last spring), there is a lot of reading (especially if your knowledge of WWI pre-dates 9/11). Stopping and reading with a non-reader is hard (even if that non-reader is not a toddler). We saw a couple of families with kids and they were sort of hammering through, stopping for the videos and anything shiny but sailing right past the reading and the smaller displays. My advice? Find a sitter or strap your child in a stroller and give them a new episode of Dinosaur Train and some headphones (for the record, I'm not a fan of that second option but sometimes the first option just doesn't exist). Although, if you are visiting with kids, check the website for Hands-On History opportunities. Generally at 1 PM on these days, staff will bring artifacts from the collection out and kids are encouraged to touch and explore these items. I don't know about you, but I had Blue at "touch".

Parking wasn't a problem because it was 2:30 PM on a Thursday during the summer when all of the kids are down the street at Crown Center. There is some parallel parking in front on both sides of a grassy median so I slid right in (thanks to my superb parallel parking skills). The Liberty Memorial is the most recognizable structure of the museum and strongly resembles Coit Tower in San Francisco. The museum and research center are housed below the tower and it's an easy stroll from the museum exit to the elevators that take you to the top of Liberty Memorial, which offers the best 360 degree view of Kansas City.
It was a stifling, yet overcast day so this isn't the most picturesque photo of the museum and Memorial but it gives you an idea of what you'll see upon approaching the building. Once inside, a greeter (I'm assuming a volunteer and veteran, judging by his age and the way all service members tend to sort of stand at attention when "at work"...even when they are 65+) met us at the door and quickly explained some pointers for navigating the museum. Most importantly, there are no bathrooms once you enter the main building. And where to stand to take the iconic photo of the Liberty Memorial's reflection against the field of poppies.

Oh, the field of poppies.

When I first read about this museum on Trip Advisor, I noticed many reviewers mentioning the field of poppies under the bridge at the entrance. A field of poppies? How beautiful! I wonder if you have to go at a certain time of year to catch them in bloom? Certainly they will be brown and wilty after the sweltering heat we've had for 2 weeks. Maybe we should wait until spring to go. But I wanted Shana to experience the museum and I don't know how many KC trips she has in her, so we added it to the list. As it turns out, I don't think the poppies are real. I could be wrong but we discussed it and we both agreed that, even from 15 feet above, they looked rather...silky. The poppies represent the service members killed in WWI...each poppy representing 1,000 combatant deaths, totaling 9,000 poppies under the glass bridge. That's a lot of poppies to keep alive. So, am I a brat for being disappointed that they weren't real? Yes, probably. But I got over it pretty quickly and was still sobered by the idea that each one represented 1,000 lives.
Before crossing over the bridge and into the museum, we stopped by the ticket desk to pick up the audio guides. When there's an audio guide available, I splurge for it because it's such an inexpensive way to enhance the experience. Often there are interviews with people directly associated with the museum, as well as tips for navigating the exhibits. Audio guides at the WWI Museum are $5 each and a regular adult admission is $14 (good for 2 days). If you are active duty military, your admission is always 50% off and spouses are $2 off. Wednesdays are always 1/2 price for everyone. Kids under 6 are FREE!

If you are in the 30-40 something set, chances are, you had a grandparent or great grandparent who served in some capacity during WWI, but you know nothing of their experiences because they died before you cared enough to ask. As it was, I couldn't even remember how the US ended up entering the war. Apparently, I'm not alone as this is the very first topic addressed in the audio guide. The war began on July 28, 1914 and the US didn't declare war with Germany until April of 1917 so much of the museum and guide are focused on war between the French, English and Germans. For example, the foxhole made its debut during WWI and each country's military had a different strategy for constructing one. A good deal of space was used to recreate each country's distinctive foxhole design. Small portals are inset within the walls with motion-activated speakers above so as you stick your head in to observe the design, it triggers the sounds of war and a narrator's voice describing the scene.

With trench warfare, came the inevitable...
 Nerve gas was first used during WWI and, as a result, the gas mask made its debut.
And, for the first time, America was truly united behind the cause. Everyone was enlisted to help fight The Great War. Housewives gladly collected their copper and aluminum. Civilians forfeited many comforts and luxuries for the sake of war.

One of the largest wall-mounted exhibits is a map of the countries involved in WWI, which is everything in red.

Countries in black remained neutral.
The largest group of neutral countries during WWI now spend all of their time trying to annihilate one another. Everyone who finds this deeply ironic, please raise your hand.

Throughout the museum, there are a few interactive displays (which we cruised past because that's where the kids flocked) and a couple of 10-15 minute videos. Both were well-done and actually enhanced the experience, as opposed to simply restating what was already presented. One of the films was projected onto a screen above life-size mannequins of troops in battle. If you are unmoved by this scene, there is no hope for you in this life.
Blue Star Moms was founded during WWI and they still profoundly affect our lives today. Every summer, they ask a lengthy list of museums in each state to offer free admission to active duty military and their dependents. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Neal, Blue and I dash around, visiting as many Blue Star Mom Museums as possible. This is just one of their many positive contributions but it is one that we are highly appreciative of every year.

The number of stars indicates how many sons (or daughters, now) you have serving overseas.

Of course, with war comes casualty and wounds. Amputations were common and military hospitals were archaic. Penicillin wasn't discovered until 1927 but Marie Curie did bring her x-ray technology to the front lines of WWI, which saved many.

One other display that I felt indicated the highest attention to detail was a wall of unit photos. They are mostly 5x7 pictures, each containing 100 men or more. It's hard to see much more than a sea of faces and uniforms. However, the museum added large magnifying glass that slides vertically and horizontally so that visitors can truly examine each photo.
What a unique and effective way to engage visitors. It's hard, as a mom, to not look at these photos and imagine these are someone's sons. It makes this Army Wife sad that war is ever waged.

As we finished up, we rounded the corner to a room that displayed full wall-size photos of the 3 cities that dominated the world at the end of WWI...which differed from the 3 cities in power at the beginning of WWI, posted in the first room of the museum. The final room leaves the visitor with a sense of hope for the prosperity that followed WWI, but also a sense of doom as we all know WWII was not far down the road.
We returned our audio guides and exited the side entrance, headed for the elevator that would take us to the top of Liberty Memorial. Once you reach the top, there are still about 40 cramped stairs to the observatory. They are sure to tell you this at the bottom, just in case you can't do the 40 stairs. And the elevator is still manually operated. There is no narration by the museum volunteer but he is happy to answer any questions you may have about the museum or the memorial. Once you reach the top, Kansas City is laid out before you.

Again, no filter. Just the haze of July and a bit of the smoke from wildfires in Canada drifting through.

Kansas City, MO natives are quite proud of the fact that they were able to construct and open the Liberty Memorial Museum by 1926. The Liberty Memorial Association and Kansas City citizens, together, raised $2 million in less than 2 weeks. It was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in November, 1926. By 1994, the building had deteriorated so badly that it was closed due to safety concerns. Local malls voluntarily displayed pieces from the museum's collection until the Memorial could be re-opened. Again, Kansas City natives banded together to repair and re-open their treasured museum. In 1998, they passed a limited-run sales tax to support the restoration, but plans to revitalize went international and the funds raised totaled $102 million. Not only did they restore, but they also expanded, now including many documents that had surfaced since the original opening in 1926. In 2004, Congress designated the museum as the nation's official WWI museum. There is also a functioning research facility under the Liberty Memorial.

I imagine that many of my fellow 30 and 40-somethings would view this museum and its collection as a monument to irrelevance. What do foxholes and war bonds have to do with us? Everything has changed. However, I would argue that besides it being a place to honor and pay respect to our WWI veterans, it's also a monument to the adage, "If you do not know your history, you are doomed to repeat it." At some point, we have to take responsibility for our own education. Skipping over it in high school is one thing. Driving your family right past it on the way to a Royals game is something else entirely.


  1. I have definitely learned to appreciate museums these past few years. WWI is especially interesting for me because I'm Polish and it played a huge part of where Poland is today.

  2. French major speaking here ... I think the English began the poppy tradition during wWI. Even today, you see them selling and wearing red poppies for "armistice day" - I think it's our Memorial Day, but it may be different, and there's a poem, too ..."in Flanders field the poppies grow..." if they taught WWI in my school, clearly I missed that day! Sounds like a good trip.


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