Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Keeping the Memory Alive: A Visitor’s Experience at the National World War I Museum

by Cody Northrup

I had the opportunity to visit the National World War I Memorial and Museum in Kansas City this month, and as a history teacher with a particular interest in the First World War, I wanted to share the experience with my fellow World War I aficionados. While the museum itself is fairly new, having just been opened in 2006, the memorial that sits above it has a history dating back nearly a century. In 1919, just months after the battlefields finally grew quiet after four years of combat, citizens of Kansas City felt the urge to pay a lasting tribute to the American participants in the war. They were able to quickly raise several million dollars, and the final product of their activism, completed in the 1920s, is a sight to behold. Describing the numerous statues and symbols that adorn the memorial deserves an article all its own, but the main attraction is the Liberty Memorial Tower, stretching 265 feet in the air. While exploring the memorial, it is difficult not to appreciate its majestic design.

Kansas City may not seem like the most obvious location for what the United States had deemed its official WWI museum, but it is an appropriate area for numerous reasons. The commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing was born and raised just miles outside the city (the museum is actually located on Pershing Street), and an artillery captain in the war named Harry S. Truman, who went on to become President of the United States, came from neighboring Independence. Additionally, only seven states in the nation produced more Doughboys than did Missouri, which enlisted over 128,000 soldiers in all.
Onto the museum itself, I feel there are three strengths that should be highlighted. The first of these is the accessibility it provides to all audiences. History buffs will surely feel the greatest sense of awe when exploring the exhibits, but those with little background knowledge of the war can easily catch up on the context with the videos that play throughout the museum. Even children can stay involved by completing a scavenger hunt guide. The second strength is the museum’s ability to establish balance and impartiality. The first half of the exhibits cover the war from 1914–17, while the second half focuses on the United States’ involvement from 1917–18. I did not feel that the material presented any bias for or against any country. It is up to the viewer to make up his or her own mind based on the artifacts displayed. And while the Western Front deservedly receives much attention, lesser known topics such as the role of Asian powers in the war and the AEF Siberia receive some much-appreciated spotlight as well.

A glimpse into life in the trenches 

The final strength is the somber atmosphere the museum is able to create. While the visit was an exciting experience, I feel that the First World War was a tragic event and appreciated the ability to reflect on it in such a way. Upon entering, visitors cross a glass bridge, suspended over a field of 9,000 (artificial) poppies. Each of these poppies represents 1,000 lives that were lost in combat. While I know that 9,000,000 is an enormous number, seeing the sacrifices before me in this visual way allowed me to better understand just how dramatic that number is.
While viewing the museum’s first display, featuring artifacts from a peaceful prewar Europe, one can hear the sounds of artillery being fired from a distant part of the building. It creates a sense of the impending doom that quickly struck the people of Europe in the summer of 1914. Other examples are the peepholes that allow one to look in on mannequin soldiers seeking cover in a life-size trench and a ledge that lets viewers look down on soldiers crossing a shell-pocked no-man’s-land. I felt like a voyeur who was able to step back a century into time when observing these exhibits. While I am certainly glad I never had to experience the horrors of trench warfare firsthand, gaining a glimpse of it through these battlefield recreations gave me a new sense of what the combat must have felt like. It wasn’t the new facts that I learned at the museum that I most appreciated; rather, it was this sense of reflection that the displays were able to instill.
I should add here, and as the generation born in the late 19th century who had the misfortune of achieving adulthood in a war-torn world can attest to, timing is everything. The atmosphere I described is best achieved on quiet day. A ticket allows visitors two days of admission. The first day I visited, I happened to arrive at the same time as a large middle school class on a field trip. Luckily, the second day I attended saw the museum pretty empty, allowing me to appreciate it without fighting for room to view the exhibits with the other visitors. If you plan on visiting, perhaps give the museum a call beforehand in order to avoid large crowds.

Looking down on the field of poppies upon entering the museum

While there are far too many collections and artifacts on display to begin to mention in this space, I would like to spotlight a temporary exhibit that commemorates the centennial anniversary of the two bloodiest battles of the First World War — Verdun and the Somme. Titled “1916: They Shall Not Pass,” it features a multitude of items used in these now legendary battles, such as a Vickers machine gun, a 340mm mortar shell, and a bullet-pierced helmet. The exhibit will continue to be displayed through March 1917, when it will be replaced by one dedicated to the anniversary of the United States’ entry into the war. It is awe-inspiring to be up close and personal with these objects, knowing that exactly 100 years ago they were being used to permanently change the world as we know it.

Unfortunately the First World War has become largely forgotten in the collective memory of Americans. Because of this, I appreciate efforts — whether it is sites like Roads to the Great War or museums like the one in Kansas City — that use the centennial anniversary of the war to keep its memory and significance alive. If you have any questions about a particular piece of the museum, leave a comment here or contact me at


  1. They raised a little over $2 million,, half of which went for the land. Dollars stretched further in those days. It took $75 million to clean and repair, in the 1990's, what cost about $1 million to build. The tower is 217 feet tall, with another 83 feet below the deck, going down bedrock.

    I think the museum has two things missing. First, it has a policy of no winners, no losers, no good guys, no bad guys. How can one learn from the mistakes of others, if no one made a mistake? Secondly, they don't discuss things when they don't have an artifact to display, and too often artifacts are displayed like modern art; it is what it is with no context: Why was it built? Cost? How many renin the crew? Was it successful? Lacking artifacts to display, one would never know there was fighting in Rumania or the Carpathians. Genocide or ethnic cleansing? Corruption and inflation? Starvation and disease? The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913? Greece and Turkey still fighting after the armistice? How smokeless powder changed the battlefield? The significance of the Haber-Bosch process in prolonging the war? These things never happened.

    1. Dear ES, I'm sorry to learn that your visit was so disappointing. It's often referred to by other reviewers as "Smithsonian class."

      For the benefit of other readers, the current main part of the museum was a result of construction to shore up the failing foundation due to ground shifts over the years. Demolition and reconstruction always cost more than original construction. The original museum was in the small west building. There is still isn't space to display more than about a fourth of the collection at one time.

      It's rather absurd to think a museum can tell the visitor what to think about any topic. All sides made tragic mistakes. The museum has inspired me to learn more about the four years that practically wiped out a generation. I first learned about the areas in the complaint as a result of visiting the museum. I'm still doing research six years after my first visit.

  2. Excellent comments and description of the experience. It is truly a wonderful way to experience this history. They also have a great archive for researchers.

  3. Although the first commentator finds a lot lacking, I don't see how any museum can possibly cover EVERYTHING on its topic. That's what a library of books is for. I've found the museum educational, informative, and emotionally moving. It leads to deep thought. Moreover, I really appreciate this well-written and thoughtful review. Thank you! DB

  4. I was in Kansas City for a VVA convention about the time it closed. Sad that it was closed. I hope to get back out there soon to see it.

  5. ... and, up to the computer age, there are books... lots and lots of BOOKS to cover ALL aspects of the war...