Jen and I have taken vacations at each end of the continental US and into the Pacific, but have alternated trips far away with trips close to home, usually every-other year. 2013 took us to Kansas City for a mini-vacation, a two-night stay over our anniversary. Jen had wanted to go to see an exhibit at Union Station, but we were staying just down the street from the National World War I Museum, and I convinced her we should go see it, as well.
Since our 2010 visit to Washington DC, I have been determined to honor the sacrifices of our military, as well as civilians who have suffered during wartime. I have also developed an obsession with learning about the human crises that have led to all-out war. It seems to be a thin line between differing opinions and bloodshed.
Remembering those who served in World War I has become even more important now that the last of those young men (and women) are gone. 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Europe, and 2017 will be 100 years since America joined the fight, so the Museum will have many special events throughout the years to come.
My experience at the museum in 2013 was amazing. I was thoroughly impressed–stunned even–with the multifaceted permanent exhibit. I left it in utter disbelief that I have lived in Missouri for more than 40 years and had never even heard of this place. I think it is getting more attention now, partly because of the centennial, and partly because the Royals put Kansas City back on the map last fall, but perhaps I am only noticing the recognition now because I am looking for it. This is a place to be celebrated nationwide.
The museum wasn’t always so nice. The memorial first opened in 1926 but was redesigned and expanded in 2006, when the museum was nationally designated. It sits around the foundation of the Liberty Memorial, a 217-foot tower dedicated in 1921 to honor the freedom and peace earned by the end of the war. There have been efforts in the past to locate the official, “national” World War I museum in Washington, where it would surely get more visitors. But DC doesn’t need it, and no distance should be too far to travel, no location too remote, to honor this remarkable event in time. And Kansas City, after all, was the first to establish such a tribute as the Liberty tower. The museum, I assure you, is worth the effort.
It is easily accessible, just south of downtown, in Penn Valley Park. Parking tends to be easy, as the memorial and museum have a 2000-foot circular driveway leading up to them, with parking on each side. At the end of the driveway is a walkway paved with memorial bricks, some placed by the museum and others paid for by individual donors. Beyond it are ramps that lead down to a fountain outside the museum doors, and large staircases on either side of it that lead up to the promenade atop the museum, at the base of the Liberty tower. There, to either side of the tower, are statues of sphinxes, both covering their faces. One faces east, shielding its eyes from the battlefields of war, and the other faces west, hesitant to look into the unknown future.
The entrance to the museum is a windowless wall with huge metal doors, making the subterranean edifice resemble a well-protected bunker. To the left of the entrance, once inside, is the ticket booth, gift shop, and the Over There Café, which serves period food including a very good chipped beef, one of the menu items that the soldiers would have been eating. To the right is a private auditorium. The way straight ahead is lit by skylights in the ceiling, and under them lies a floor of glass which reveals a field of poppies below it.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
— John McRae, 1915
At the far end of the glass floor is a theater which shows an introductory film, an historical recap of the events that led up to the war.
To the right of that theater is the start of the permanent exhibit, which continues in a circle around to the other end, left of the theater. The exhibit is divided into two halves, separated by another theater. The first half covers the beginning of the war, between the countries abroad, while the second half covers it from 1917, when the US joined the fight. Near the start of the second section, there is a little room with an American flag that flew over the capitol when President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.
Both sides have a giant timeline across the inside wall, detailing key events in the war and what else was going on in the world at the time. The center floor and outer wall contain artifacts and other displays, including a re-creation of various trenches from which much of the early fighting took place. There is weaponry, uniforms, and a tank included in the second-largest collection of World War I artifacts in the world.
There are audio rooms in which you can listen to period music or notable voices of the time. There are “war rooms” filled with long tables that have interactive surfaces, where kids of all ages can have a little fun while they learn —
The Horizon Theater in the middle of the museum shows a film explaining the slow entrance of America into the conflict, and draws the audience into a battle with special light and sound effects.
The exhibit shows in many ways the tragedy of war, including a life-size reproduction of a crater left by a bomb striking a house, with personal belongings scattered throughout it, and the remains of the house itself amid the destruction, waiting to be spotted like a macabre I Spy.
Just before you exit the main exhibit, there is a room for reflection, and on its walls are quotes about the end of the war and its meaning by several prominent speakers of the era, and another, foreboding declaration by a young German soldier determined to avenge his country. The global crisis known as “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars” certainly did not live up to the latter name.
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Upstairs, Memory Hall and Exhibit Hall house temporary exhibits, and I checked out a couple of those in later visits without Jen. I also made it to the top of the tower, which we did not do together in 2013.
A panorama from the top:
Union Station from Liberty Tower:
Liberty Tower from Union Station: