MUSEUM REVIEW: National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, USA

4 mins read
Image: National WWI Museum and Memorial

The name of this stunning museum is a bit of a misnomer for, if anything, it is not national but international in its scope – a fact that is certainly appropriate for the subject matter. Located on a beautiful slope in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri, this amazing structure, with its 217 -tall memorial tower and large galleries, was dedicated in 1921 and opened to the public in 1926, before what was at the time the largest crowd a US President had ever addressed in the United States.

Walking down a long, broad ramp and entering through huge brass doors, the visitor then passes over a large, plate-glass floor beneath which a field of poppies commemorates the fallen of the Great War. There are 9,000 poppies in this field, with each flower representing 1,000 dead.

The galleries are beautifully designed and full of memorabilia relating to what many at the time believed naively to be ‘the war to end all wars.’ It was sadly not to be so.

There is an unparalleled collection of uniforms, weapons, equipment, paraphernalia, and images of all of the nations engaged in that titanic struggle. Here you can see up close the Pickelhaube of the German soldier and the full coat of a Cossack cavalryman. Huge glass cases display every sort of small arm from the Mauser broomhandle and the Webley revolver to Enfields, Remingtons, and many others.

Several cases contain bright, beautifully tailored uniforms; gleaming, spiked, and plumed helmets; sparkling aiguillettes; and the lances and sabres that many cavalrymen carried into the initial phases of the war.

These were quickly rendered obsolete by the ubiquitous Maxim and Spandau machine-guns, and by the heavy guns that shattered flesh and bone and churned the fields into a muddy moonscape. Thus the 19th century’s Romantic vision of combat was quickly replaced with a 20th-century reality that placed the average soldier, in the words of Ezra Pound, ‘eye-deep in Hell’.

Nor does the collection merely display uniforms and side arms; here too are dozens of artillery pieces of all calibres and manufacture, as well as a complete Renault FT-17 tank, its left side still carrying the scar of a direct hit by German artillery.

Now this might seem enough to keep one’s interest, but really it is just the tip of the iceberg, for the World War I Museum holds a treasure trove of material, some of which is truly unique, including, for example, a complete nurse’s uniform from Imperial Russia.

The museum also holds a pair of disparate uniforms worn by a single soldier, in their own way quite unusual. The soldier was a Dane dra ed into the German forces. He deserted,  ed to America, and then joined the American Expeditionary Force to return to France as a doughboy. His German uniform tunic and cap are displayed alongside his American uniform and overseas cap.

Things the experienced museum visitor will appreciate are the full and accurate explanations of each display item – a nicety too often absent from collections. Detailed full-scale dioramas recreate the environment and conditions of sections of trench for German and Allied forces, each duplicated with painstaking care for accuracy, and replete with original uniforms and equipment.

In another section of the museum, the large semicircular Horizon Theatre displays a continuous film of various aspects of the war for visitors in a viewing gallery. Between the screen and the viewers, in the vast space below, is recreated a full tableau of a section of a battlefield.

Throughout the museum are displayed original posters, war art, flags, pennants, and thousands of photographs. Of great value to students and scholars of the conflict is the exceptional Edward Jones Research Centre, which contains thousands of records and abundant research materials.

All too often overlooked are the personal papers of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses of the war, but here too the museum excels, displaying a great many of these artefacts, with thousands more available to researchers.

Nor are the smaller, personal items overlooked – along with backpacks and entrenching tools are the religious medallions, good-luck charms, harmonicas, banjos, shaving kits, writing equipment, and even the rudimentary box-cameras that the soldiers carried with them into war; a sharp contrast to the daggers, trench knives, pistols, grenades, gas masks, and brass knuckles that are displayed alongside.

Another intriguing relic is the original logbook of the RMS Lusitania (on loan from the Harry S Truman Library) whose sinking spurred the United States’ entry into the conflict. Close at hand are original examples of a naval mine and of the type of torpedo used to sink the Lusitania.

Evidencing the technological scope of the war are artefacts that range from carrier-pigeon baskets to field telephones, and from horse-drawn wagons, carts, and gun limbers to automobiles and aircraft. (The latter include a Fokker D.VII, a SPAD, and a Nieuport).

A remarkably large and ornately constructed complex, the museum even has two gigantic stone Sphinxes, representing Memory and the Future, on the Liberty Memorial Deck. The north lawn of the facility features a huge stone frieze, 148 long and 18 high – one of the largest such carvings in the world – illustrating the journey from war to peace.

The complex also features numerous classrooms, conference rooms, and an auditorium, all for educational use. Furthering the educational mission of the museum, there is an expanse of interactive audiovisual tables that provide a wealth of information on the conflict and its personalities.

Located just steps away are separate audiovisual booths where one can listen to recordings of period music, poetry, and reminiscences by participants in the Great War.

This is also the site for a gathering of serving officers from the nearby US Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Officers from Australia and New Zealand met here in 2015 for Anzac Day – a centennial commemoration of the disastrous campaign for Gallipoli. In a moving tribute to the fallen, the Turkish and German officers attending the staff college joined them.

This is a facility that is far too large and extensive to be viewed and appreciated in a single visit, so the visitor’s entry-ticket is good for two successive days. For a good overview of the museum and listings of its special exhibits, visit the museum website: there one can also see the schedule for upcoming symposia and special events.

Frederick Chiaventone

100 West 26th Street Kansas City, Missouri 64108, USA
+1 816 888 8100

This review appeared in issue 74 of Military History Monthly.

1 Comment

  1. My late husband’s Uncle served in both the Army and the Navy during WW1. Trying to find a museum which might be interested in a loan of his uniforms, flight goggles and a helmet and dog tags.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.