National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, Mo.
In 2004, the US Congress designated the official National World War I Museum to be located at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. The original idea behind the Liberty Memorial was to commemorate those who served in the Great War at the regional level. It had its beginnings in 1919 when the Liberty Memorial Association (of which Captain—and future US President—Harry Truman was a member) began a community-based fundraising drive that collected $2.5 million dollars in just 10 days. A site dedication on November 1, 1921, in front of over 200,000 attendees was the only time in history that the Allied commanders Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, Admiral David Beatty of Great Britain, Lieutenant General Baron Jacques of Belgium, General Armando Diaz of Italy, and General John J. Pershing of the United States were together in one place. Following five years of construction, President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the Liberty Memorial on November 11, 1926, with over 150,000 people in attendance.
This was the beginning of what would become a constantly expanding museum. Since 1920 the Liberty Memorial Association—made up of WWI veterans at the time—had been collecting objects and documents related to the Great War. The veterans wanted the public to see these artifacts, so alongside the memorial two small buildings were constructed to house some of the artifacts and incredible pieces of art, including the Pantheon de la Guerre mural.
Over time, the substructure of the Liberty Memorial deteriorated, and in 1994 the entire complex was closed due to safety concerns. That would change in 1998, when again, the Liberty Memorial Association and the public rose to support the revered site. The challenge was not only to raise funds to repair the existing structure but to expand the complex underground for a new museum. This expansion project was fully supported by the citizens of Kansas City, and it enabled the Liberty Memorial to also become the National World War One Museum.
On December 2, 2006, the U.S. National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial opened its huge bronze doors to the public. What the public witnessed was a $102 million, 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. Tens of thousands of artifacts, stored away for years due to space limitations in the old museum, were now on exhibit for the first time. Entering the museum, visitors walk over the Paul Sunderland Bridge, a glass structure spanning a battle-scarred field of 9,000 poppies. Each poppy represents 1,000 combatant deaths during WWI, totaling 9 million combatant deaths from all the belligerent nations, not just the US.
That is the beauty behind this museum. Although a National Museum, the institution is international in scope. Since the US did not enter the war until 1917, the first half of the museum is not about the US at all. Circular by design, the museum’s exhibits take the patron down a chronological warpath from the “Prologue” undercurrents that were preconditions for the war (including an excellent 12-minute video) to post-war global impacts in the “Epilogue Gallery.”
This is not a “dusty relic” museum. The exhibits themselves tell the human story, including soldiers and civilians caught in the horrors of war, and life at the home front. The exhibits not only contain what is possibly the foremost repository of World War I historical artifacts in the world, but interactive high-tech tables engage the visitor to experience WWI history and technology in 3-D, 360-degree images. Strategically placed throughout the museum, wall-mounted immersive videos cleverly illustrate key campaigns and battles. Comfortable soundproof rooms provide music, poetry, prose and historic voices in the “Reflections” audio alcoves. Halfway through the museum is the “Horizon Theater,” a dramatic 100-foot-wide screen showing a 15-minute program of America on the threshold of war. Following the Horizon Theater, the second half of the museum covers the years 1917–1919, and America’s entry into and participation in the war.
Some of the museum’s most noteworthy exhibits include a Renault FT17 tank with original camouflage paint and a 37mm gun protruding from its turret. Names of American soldiers are etched on the inside, including a soldier from Kansas City. It has a gaping hole in its side from a German 7.7cm (77mm) cannon, and the shell fragments and shrapnel balls found inside are from the tank from when it was struck in battle. An original German 7.7cm cannon is positioned next to the tank, as is a German 13mm Abwehr Gewehr or T-Gewehr (anti-tank rifle). Other rare items include a 1917 Harley Davidson motorcycle in complete condition, numerous trench weapons, newly acquired grenade and machine gun collections, and African-American artifacts.
The museum also houses an excellent 20,000-square-foot Research Center, including an on-line collections database of thousands of two- and three-dimensional items. World-renowned historians, such as Sir John Keegan, Hew Strachan, Jay Winter and Niall Ferguson have given scholarly presentations in the plush J. C. Nichols auditorium. Interpreting the history of WWI to encourage public involvement and informed decision-making is also accomplished with undergraduate and graduate classes facilitated in the museum’s classrooms. As an example, US and foreign officers from the US Army Command and General Staff College, located just 45 minutes away, regularly attend class at the museum. Additionally, as you would expect, the memorial attracts numerous veterans groups and patriotic organizations for events and dedications.
Each Memorial Day the complex hosts the largest events in the region, with thousands listening to keynote speakers, observing the military parade and the watching the powerful “laying of the wreath” ceremony. Particularly notable were the festivities held on Memorial Day 2008 when Mr. Frank Buckles, the last surviving American doughboy, was honored in front of a patriotic crowd of over 40,000. (Frank Buckles died February 27, 2011, at his home in Charles Town, W.Va., at the age of 110. A corporal who drove an ambulance during the Great War and a prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War II, he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.—Editor)
The ceremony also marks the presentation of newly purchased engraved bricks to The Walk of Honor, a testament by those who want to honor others for their contributions to liberty and freedom. Currently, over 9,000 bricks are neatly laid in three different sections: bricks dedicated to those who served in World War I, to veterans of any military service, and to honor civilian friends, families or organizations. These personalized engraved bricks for the Walk of Honor are available for purchase. The costs are $200 for a 4 inch x 8 inch brick, $400 for an 8 inch x 8 inch and $1,000 for a 16 inch x 16 inch.
In recognition of the current centennial of the war, numerous special events will be occurring through 2019. This includes two significant events taking place in the next several months. On September 13-14, the museum is sponsoring “Living the Great War: Rendezvous with History.” During that weekend, the museum is inviting World War I living-history presenters to share their knowledge and collections in a camp setting on the museum grounds. On November 7 and 8 the museum will hold a symposium on “1914: Global War and American Neutrality,” presented by the National WWI Museum and the U.S. Centennial Commission, in partnership with the Western Front Association and the World War One Historical Association. Speakers include Christopher Capozzola, John Milton Cooper, Robert Doughty, Nicholas Lambert, Michael Neiberg, Dennis Showalter, Geoffrey Wawro and others in a provocative exploration of European and American reactions in society and the military on land and sea.
The museum’s summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day) are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday – Friday and 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday. Following Labor Day, the museum will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission for a 2-day pass is $14 for adults, $12 seniors (65+), students (18+ with ID) $12, Youth (6-17) $8, and children under 6 free. Active duty military receive a 50% discount on admission, while military career retired get $2 off. For those wanting an annual membership for the Liberty Memorial Association, the price is $35 per individual and $75 for a family. This affords free admission during the year and 10% discounts at the museum store and food items at the Over There Café.
In summary, a visit to The National World War One Museum at Liberty Memorial is an excellent way to spend a day or two. Its combination of artifacts, visual displays, videos, and hands-on activities inform and entertain. It does a superb job of honoring the memory and sacrifices of all those who served their country and defended liberty during World War I. No visitor will leave unaffected!
For further information on the National World War One Museum at Liberty Memorial go to https://theworldwar.org . The impressive website includes details on exhibitions, collections, and upcoming events. Additionally, it provides links to the aforementioned on-line collections database dedicated to all things World War I and to the on-line store where you can purchase a wide variety of items related to The Great War.
Rick Baillergeon is a retired U.S. Army Infantry officer. Since his retirement, he has served as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is also co-author of the popular Armchair General web series “Tactics 101.”
Scott A. Porter is a retired U.S. Army Armor officer. Since his retirement, he has served as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is a former trustee of the Liberty Memorial Association.
All photos courtesy of The National World War One Museum at Liberty Memorial unless otherwise noted.