Museum Review: The National WWI Museum

I knew about the place because another grad student had been part of the team working on the creation of the museum and assembling information and planning the museum. However, I’d never been there. So, things happened to work out that this past week I was able to go visit the Liberty Memorial and National WWI Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. As with most things in that part of KC-MO, getting there was not easy due to twisty roads and construction in progress. Between three maps and two navigators, the parking area was found.

Under the entry to the museum proper, WWI Museum. All photos by author.

You walk down under the main 1920s Liberty Memorial and Hall of Honor to enter the museum. There you find the atrium, some special exhibits, the ticket counter, restrooms, café, and a coat check/customer service counter. The restrooms are wonderful, I should add. Go before you enter the main museum, because there are no facilities inside the display area.

The guidebooks recommend allowing two or two and a half hours. I’d budget three or four, but I’m a military history nerd without small children or bored adults in tow.

The museum assumes that you are an American, and that you don’t have much military history background or knowledge about the world in 1914. As a result, I found myself biting my tongue several times during the introductory film, and later on as I read display information. It’s not incorrect, just . . . either traditional (“Germany started it!!”) or a little too bare-bones. Which means it is probably a bit of an overload for the casual visitor if he or she reads everything. I learned stuff, and it’s a great museum, but I’m not the target audience, pun intended.

The museum starts with 1914, and focuses on the Western Front. That makes sense, since it is aimed at Americans, and there were not many (if any) large groups of Yanks on the Eastern, African, or Middle Eastern fronts. The trench dioramas are not as memorable as the one in the Imperial War Museum, but they are good at showing what an ideal trench should have looked like.

Below is how a trench should have been drained, if the men could find rocks, if the water table wasn’t so high that the trenches flooded to men’s knees, if shells didn’t damage the trench, if . . .

Once you get through a series of very good displays about the different weapons and forces in the war, everyday life for the soldiers and war workers, and refugees, and some of the non-Western Front fighting, you are at the half-way point. There are some interactive displays that are currently on stand-by, but they look as if they would be excellent once everything is back up and running. Small side-rooms and displays allow visitors to see film clips and hear interviews, poetry, and letters from the time.

At the half-way point, a second film describes how the US got into the war. The theater is dark and shadowy, and not until the end of the film do you realize what is lurking below the seats. (I skipped the film, and caught photos of the battlefield by the light of the movie.)

I confess, I was running out of time when going through the US side, and didn’t give it the attention it deserved. That’s the problem when you Read All the Things!!! in any given museum (except the Leopold in Vienna. Sorry, that type of Modern Art does not appeal.) Some of the interpretations left me tongue-bitten once more, but I’m a professional historian, and not the target market for the museum. Later, after looking at who works as consultants and curators for the museum, some things became clearer.

Some things had not changed since, oh, the 1500s?

Bone saws, forceps, clamps and straps to cut off blood flow during the cutting . . .

However, some things were quite new indeed.

Those are all probably at least two minute exposures. Something that is not needed today, and probably not recommended, either.

The book store has a good selection specialist books, but very few general overview histories of WWI. Given the size of the shop, I can understand why, but having Keegan’s WWI history or a few other things like that would probably go over well with patrons. The reproductions of war posters, tee-shirts, and other things are quite good and well priced.

I highly recommend the museum. My complaints are those of a specialist, someone who spent several years doing deep research into the conflict and the events leading up to it in Europe, and so I’m going to whine about things normal people don’t notice and wouldn’t worry about. It’s not as visceral as are parts of the Imperial War Museum, which is probably good for younger patrons. Nor is it as in-depth as the Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, but since the US was only in WWI for a year and a half, well, that too fits the situation. It is a good museum, with excellent displays and presentations, and well worth the cost. Military, veterans, and others can get discounts.

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8 thoughts on “Museum Review: The National WWI Museum

  1. I studied portions of this from another perspective, and would also bite my tongue on some points. That looks really good, if we get into the heartlands for a trip.

    I get the willies from that exposure time, but those were slow emulsions and they were still learning about medical use of X-rays. I they could get metal or bone fragments out and clean the wound, maybe the casualty could survive the radiation burn.

  2. My high school art club went on a day trip to KC in the 60s. We visited the Nelson Art Gallery, the Kansas City Art Institute, and the Liberty Memorial. Several of us climbed to the top of the Memorial. Quite a view!. Sadly, at that time there was very little information on what it was a memorial to.
    The Museum sounds like a very good addition to any trip to Kansas City.

    • It is up the hill (literally) from Crown Center, with the Hallmark museum and other things for people who might prefer art, food, shopping, and other activities.

  3. Hey, what is this “I” after the “WW” ? There was only one great war, that other thing in the 40s was just a copy cat… as any Kansas Citian should know LOL…

  4. There’s a Craig Kennedy detective story, that talks quite a lot about how one used the old X-ray machines and what they did for safety. Kinda creepy in retrospect, as a good many Craig Kennedy stories are.

    It’s called “The Deadly Tube,” and it’s included in the first Craig Kennedy anthology, The Silent Bullet.

  5. Of course, the museum planners would have been on their mettle, because that New Zealand WWI museum that got funded by Peter Jackson is freaking amazing, from what I saw on that documentary about Peter Jackson activities.

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