National World War I Museum
Kansas City, Missouri
For reasons too old to matter, Kansas City became the site of America's World War I memorial (a war fought from 1914-18). In 1921 KC built a 217-foot-tall tower topped with an eternal flame, and in its base was a museum. It had a walk-thru replica trench and lots of dusty weapons, but in the 1990s it was closed for safety reasons. The World War I museum, like the war, might have faded into history.
But Kansas City didn't want it to stop. It dug a big pit under the tower, hired a renowned architect with Washington, DC, credentials, and in 2006 it opened the National World War One Museum in the pit. The architect praised the new museum in its press material for its "experiential environments" and "sense of immediacy."
The replica trench is back -- but from an experiential perspective, you can't walk through it any more. You can poke your head into uncomfortable holes that don't let you see much of anything. Elsewhere there's a 100-foot-long recreation of "No Man's Land" (the blasted terrain between the combatants' front lines), viewed from an elevated distance; its sound-and-light effects are turned on during a too-long multimedia show.
The National World War One Museum owns the second-largest collection of World War I relics in the world (most of it not on display). A few clusters of artifacts catch our interest, such as a glassed-in collection of grenades dangling like Christmas decorations. An ironic nod to once-a-year cross-front line caroling and gift exchanges, perhaps? Probably not. And it's all kept distant, a no man's land of glass between you and most items. You can touch a couple of howitzers, but they're so perfect that you don't.
One gallery is dominated by a long, interactive light table where visitors use laser pens to call up photos and files about the Great War. There are a number of hi-tech computer touches at the museum that are probably great for school groups, but to us seem to be taking up room that could have been inhabited by a horse in a gas mask.
Cavernous and dark, the museum also seems designed to make you sad. Everyone here is cast as a French victim. There's a replica bomb crater you can enter from the side, placing you at the bottom of a big cone where disembodied voices make you feel bad for the people whose house was blown up.
When first entering the museum, visitors cross a broad glass bridge over an indoor field of poppies, signifying the fields of war dead. Yes, it made us sad too, but nice touch...
As World War I retreats from even the second and third-hand memories of those still living, we wonder how a museum can best sustain or stoke interest. Can it ever be made as moving as the Civil War or the Holocaust? Can the experience ever be as kitschy-tearful as the Titanic museum, or as crazy-eyed as an atomic museum?
Where is the passionate fan base for the National World War One Museum?(Aside from Doug's history buff Mother-in-Law, who says it's her "favorite war.") Even the nearby J.C. Penney Museum can count on occasional visits from ex-employees.