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Remembering the “Great War”

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Referred to by some historians as the “Great War,” World War I raged from 1914 to 1918 with the participation of reportedly over 100 countries including those in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and of course, America.

The only museum in America dedicated solely to honoring those who served in the Great War and preserving the history, objects and personal experiences related to it is the National WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial,

The location of the museum itself, in Kansas City, MO, is one of its most unique aspects as one might think that a memorial for such a momentous global conflict might have been placed in a more highly visible city, like Washington D.C., for example. But that is part of the allure and story.

Kansas Citians were so deeply involved in the war efforts in a variety of ways, that a mere two weeks after the Armistice on November 11, 1918, they embarked upon a memorial campaign and the next year engaged in an unprecedented, community-based fundraising drive, that in less than two weeks raised more than $2.5 million. That’s quite a feat in the early 1900s and a testament to the importance of the memorial for its citizens.

On Armistice Day in 1926, the Liberty Memorial opened its doors for the first time, and subsequent restorations—the latest completed in 2006—since that time have earned it designations as one of Kansas City’s iconic landmarks, by Congress as the National World War I Museum, and as a National Historic Landmark. Since it opened, more than one million people have walked through its hallowed halls,including several current and former political dignitaries including President Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, John McCain and Colin Powell, among others.And it continues to draw increasingly more worldwide attention, particularly during this WWI Centennial year.

One of the most distinguishing features here is the architecture, built in the Egyptian Revival style, and encompassing several distinctive entities.

The main museum building whisks you away to another place and time at the entrance, where visitors encounter a dramatic glass bridge stretched over a field of 9,000 red poppies, each representing 1,000 combatant fatalities. And if you do the math, you’ll immediately grasp the gravity of it all—that’s nine million fighting participants, plus an estimated 4-5 million civilians deaths—all in the span of four short years.

From there the extensive comprehensive exhibits examining every facet of the War include The Orientation Theater for a brief overview of the war and its historical context; a Portrait Wall and interactive video portrait gallery portraying the personal sacrifices of those who served; and The Prologue Gallery underscoring the rapid change from the relatively peaceful, progressive and optimistic culture of Europe at that time, to the sentiments, conflicts and military and diplomatic actions that led to industrialized war.

The experience also encompasses a heart-wrenching yet captivating, multi-layered, year-by-year timeline that provides the overall chronology of the War through the lens of eyewitness testimonies from soldiers to sailors, civilians, front line and medical personnel, politicians and others from different countries; tableau and immersive video and audio elements in the Immersion Galleries; interactive study stations and study collections.

Together, there are over 75,000 WWI-related artifacts, recognized as the most diverse collection in the world. Other features here include a Horizon Theater, an America at War exhibit, a 20,000-square-foot research center, a 230-seat auditorium, and an education center, museum store and café.

A Grand Tribute

The centerpiece structure and one of the major visual landmarks in Kansas City here is the Liberty Memorial Tower. Cylindrical in shape with a 36-foot diameter base that tapers off to 28 feet at the top, with its steam and lighting effects created Flame of Inspiration at night, it soars 217 feet above the main courtyard and 268 feet above the expansive North Lawn. And, it features an open-air observation deck at the top offering spectacular views of the city and surrounding metropolitan area.

Flanking both sides of the tower are two eye-catching halls. The Exhibit Hall—the main museum gallery space from 1926 to 2006—is home to the flags of the 22 WWI Allied nations, commemorative mosaic tiles with gold stars representing the sacrifice of the Gold Star Mothers of fallen soldiers, and a surviving section of the Panthéon de la Guerre mural attributed to the participation of French soldiers.

Memory Hall contains another portion of the Panthéon de la Guerre and features limited-run exhibitions, in-depth information about the Liberty Memorial via computer kiosks, and in a direct connection to Kansas City, bronze tablets listing the names of the 441 citizens who died in WWI.

A visit to the museum is historical, educational and in some ways emotional and there is a great deal to see and digest – so much so that the average visitor spends about 3-4 hours here. But for a low ticket price of only $14 for adults, and lower for seniors, students, youth, active-duty military and their families, and teachers (and all tickets are $7 every Wednesday for “World War Wednesdays”), visitors have access to all galleries and special exhibits for two consecutive days.

National recognition, international remembrance and lessons and hope for the future – it’s all here at the National WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial.

Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin

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