A Day at the Museum
My trip to the National World War 1 Museum of the United States located in Kansas City, Missouri.
On Sunday March 8th, 2015 the alarm went off at 6 o’clock in the morning. By 7:30 I was out the door and into my car at the beginning of a 3 hour drive. To keep me company I had a few episodes of the British History Podcast and a 32 ounce cup of gas station coffee. Gas station coffee has a unique ability to keep me going throughout a long drive with its combination of caffeine and horrifically bad taste. I was travelling to the National World War 1 Museum of the United States located at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Until recently, if you would have asked me to guess where the National World War 1 Museum was, Kansas City would have been far down my list of likely cities. In fact, it was not until 2004 that this title was bestowed upon the museum, which had been present on the site since 1926.
So why, specifically, was I making the trip? Well about a year ago I started the History of the Great War podcast and I had been putting off a trip to the museum for far too long. I have been thinking about making the trip up for several months, but every weekend there was always something else that had to be done. My hope in my trip was that I would maybe learn a few things, be able to see artifacts first hand, and also to evaluate their reference library (held in a basement far away from the rest of the museum) to see if more trips, for research, would be worth my time.
There are 3 main pieces to the Museum. The first is, obviously, the monument itself, a 217 foot tall tower, the second is the main exhibit hall, and then there are 2 secondary exhibit halls. As you drive up to the monument it can be seen from several blocks away, so it is pretty easy to make those last few turns. I arrived just after 10AM, when the museum opens, so parking was not a problem at the time. My bet is that the parking situation can be a bit brutal during the summer months.
Speaking of brutal, if you want to go up into the tower I am told you need to either get their early in the day or during the off season. The friendly volunteer who took me to the top said that during peak periods the line to get up to the top of the tower can run into the hundreds. A far cry from my experience as the only one atop the tower at 11AM. At the top there is an amazing view of downtown Kansas City, which honestly is not the most impressive city to look at. My favorite part of the tower actually wasn’t even the view at the top but instead the old-timey feel of the ride up. The rickety old elevator coupled with the old, obviously worn, steps made the monument feel old and majestic.
Overall, if the line is long I’m not sure I would say the tower is worth going up into. It is certainly cool for a few minutes, and Kansas City locals will probably find the view interesting, but for the most part it was not the highlight of my visit.
The meat and potatoes of the visit was definitely the main exhibit hall. This hall is a big circular room broken up on two sides by the entrance and a theater showing a 12 minute movie. Before you even walk into the main exhibit area you first must pass over a glass bridge over a field of poppies. I was told they have 9,000 poppies at the museum and each poppy represents 1,000 casualties caused by the war. It is a very nice way to begin the journey through the museum, providing a bit of a somber atmosphere. It was on this glass walkway that I had my first experience with one of the volunteers. We had a discussion about what the poppies I was standing over meant. I really only bring this up to point out that every single one of the volunteers, from the people at the ticket counter to the friendly old gentleman down in the research room, was very friendly, helpful, and always up to answer a question. With my ticket taken I moved on, into the first half of the exhibit.
The first half of the exhibit is focused strictly on the war between 1914 and 1917. Knowing nothing about the museum before I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see this amount of space given to the war before America became involved. For some reason I had developed this fear that there would be 3 plaques and a picture in a dark corner before moving on to 1917. As you walk into the room the primacy of the artillery pieces is immediately apparent. Artillery was the most deadly weapon of the war, and played a central role in every single battle. At the museum, proper respect is paid to these weapons of war. There was something like 20 (yes, I forgot the number exactly) artillery pieces from all of the countries involved in the fighting. These ranged from obsolete pieces that were quickly replaced after 1914 up to guns that barely got into the fighting in 1918. The size of some of the pieces is impressive, and the associated displays with shell casings from even larger calibers of guns give a good idea about scale that is almost impossible to grasp without seeing them in person. There were also a ton of artifacts in this first room which were displayed in glass cases. My one complaint with these displays is actually how they are laid out, you can think of it like a circular walkway with areas shaped like a “U” pointing outward. While this was just fine when I was walking through in the morning, when I tried to move back through in the afternoon it was very crowded and hard to get around.
Throughout the museum they make excellent use of large infographics on the walls to use the power of graphs and charts to impress upon the visitors information like the cost of the war, casualty figures, ammunition expenditures, and many more things. I specifically excluded pictures of these from this article because I think they work best as the giant, wall sized items that they are in the museum. Another cool feature was the timeline that ran along the inner wall of the museum that detailed an almost day by day breakdown of what was happening in the war. It is definitely worth a read with the proper amount of information, quotes, and dates to give anyone enough information to appreciate the rest of the museum.
Before moving into the American side of the museum you can first take a break on some benches to watch a short video about how America got involved in the war. I thought this video was quite interesting and well done. Before leaving the area you will be directed to look down and onto a life sized diorama of what no man’s land looked like during the war. Shell holes, rubble, men trying to walk across duckboards to stay out of the mud, everything.
As I moved out of the theater room I found myself in the American side of the museum. This side was organized very differently that the other side, thanks in part to a large shell hole display that protudes out into the area. Again the information here is very good and the artifacts are well displayed. One of the pieces that takes a first class spot in the exhibit was the Renault FT-17 tank (pictured above). It is easy to forget the role that tanks played later in the war and it is great to see one, albeit one of the smaller tanks from the war, displayed.
Overall, I thought the main exhibit areas to be excellent. Other than a few issues that could develop once the rooms get a bit fuller I thought the amount of information was great. If you know a bit about the First World War before going, don’t worry, there is so much information you will almost certainly learn something new.
The Lost Rooms
When I was done with the main exhibit hall I then went on a quest to find the two other exhibits that are on the premises. So from the exit of the main hall I had two choices, left or right, I chose right. I then had to walk a good 200 feet and about halfway through I just assumed I was going completely the wrong direction. Eventually, I found the elevator in a corner. I went up to the third floor and found myself in a cool little room that was a temporary exhibit focused on the war between July 1914 and December 1914. There was the standard artifacts in the glass cases around the room, but probably the coolest thing was on the wall behind the main entrance. This thing is none other than a piece of the Pantheon de la Guerre which was a massive mural painted to commemorate the war. I’m not going to go into great detail on what exactly this is, you can find out more on the museum’s site here. All I will say is that it covers the walls of both of these side exhibits and is certainly something to look at.
The second exhibit, which I found I could just walk past the tower to get to instead of dealing with those elevators again, contained several hand painted maps of various American actions during the war. These maps were perhaps not the easiest to understand, but they still captured my intention for longer than I expected as I followed the action of various battles through the maps. It is obvious that this room is also sometimes used or temporary displays, although sadly there were none present when visited. These two rooms are well worth your time, I do however advise you to go out the entrance of the museum and up the stairs to the tower to get to them, it is just easier that way.
Then I Was Hungry
Before my day ended I hit up the Over There Cafe for some food. You can see my delicious spread in the picture above. While the Trench Stew, Chipped Beef, and Army Goulash don’t make for much in terms of presentation (or taste really) they filled me up and did not make me sick, so I’ll consider it a win. After I washed it down with a Duvel, the best beer in the world (trust me, you should try it), I was quite content.
Anyone who lives close to Kansas City, or find themselves in the city for a few days should definitely plan a trip to the museum. I myself plan on heading back up in a month or so to spend a day doing research for the podcast. It is a great way to learn about a period of history that is not well publicized here in the states and a great way to remember those who fought, and died, in the Great War 100 years ago.