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). Three years after the war ended the city 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 obscurity.
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 I 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 I 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....
As World War I retreats from memory into history, 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 I 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.