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Discover Mid-America — January 2007

A museum that ‘puts us in the experience’

Story and photos by Ken Weyand

“A great museum doesn’t tell you about itself, it tells you about yourself,” said Ralph Appelbaum, designer for the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO

A visit to the recently opened museum near Liberty Memorial confirms what Appelbaum means. Amid its 30,0000 square feet of exhibits, a visitor comes face to face with the participants, philosophies and victims of “the Great War” and its aftermath.

A monstrous conflict
Politicians and newspaper editors called it the “war to end all wars.” And as it was fought, the phrase seemed correct. By the time World War I ended in 1918, the monstrous conflict that engulfed Europe had involved 36 countries and 65 million combatants. More than nine million lives were lost in combat and millions more civilians perished.

The Great War would spell the end of entire kingdoms and rewrite the map of Europe. Much of it was fought in muddy, waterlogged trenches, with gains measured in yards, and many areas taken and retaken after horrendous casualties.

According to one source, the British were able to advance an average of only 68 yards a day in a French campaign in 1917. Other combatants dueled for days, one army taking the opponent’s ground with heavy losses on both sides, only to lose it and fall back — then see the process repeated again and again.

The more flamboyant warriors flew over the carnage in flimsy biplanes to face a different type of carnage in the air. At first, aerial battles were fought with “gentlemen’s rules,” with pilots observing an unwritten code to not fire on each other.

One of several trench warfare displays in the National World War I Museum, this one representing the British sector.

But this would soon change, with dogfights becoming deadly contests of flying skill and brutal marksmanship. Eventually, there were few heroes left to “tell the tale” with the lifespan of combat pilots measured in days or weeks.

Hidden in the war’s casualty figures were the horribly maimed who would leave arms or legs on the battlefield. Wartime medical facilities and treatment lagged far behind the chaos wrought by the mechanized technology of warfare. Thousands of wounded veterans, many with missing limbs or mangled faces, returned home to dreary lives and stunted futures. Of the American soldiers, the dead were not brought back to the U.S., but buried in cemeteries throughout Europe.

Honoring the dead
Immediately after the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, a group of Kansas Citians proposed the idea of a memorial and museum honoring the war dead and remembering their cause. Beginning with posters, various artifacts were collected and the museum began to take shape, becoming the only one of its kind in the United States dedicated to World War I.

Local citizens raised $2.5 million to design and build the Liberty Memorial, featuring a 217-foot memorial tower and two exhibit halls. The site was dedicated in 1921 by five wartime leaders: Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, Admiral Lord David Beatty of Great Britain, General Armando Diaz of Italy, Lieutenant General Alfonse Jacques of Belgium and General John J. Pershing of the United States. It was the only time in history that the five leaders met together at one place. Later, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial.

In the intervening years, many thousands of people took the elevator to the top of the tower to view the Kansas City skyline. And the two exhibit halls received a constant flow of visitors, especially those with an appreciation for history. Yet a new era was coming and a revolutionary new museum would replace the small facility.

"You always come back to the human experience," said retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Berkheiser, museum director for the National World War I Museum.

In 1998, Kansas City voters overwhelmingly passed a half-cent sales tax to fund a major restoration of Liberty Memorial. In 2004, they approved a bond issue to construct a world-class National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. That October, President George W. Bush signed into law legislation that established the Liberty Memorial as “America’s National World War I Museum.” Two years later, on Dec. 2, 2006, the new museum officially opened to the public.

Before the official opening, retired Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Berkheiser, the museum director, led reporters on a tour. A decorated veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam, Berkheiser has been the chief executive officer of the Liberty Memorial Association since 2002. As the tour began, he pointed out the glass bridge connecting the museum lobby to the main exhibit hall.

“The glass bridge is symbolic in many ways,” Berkheiser said. “The bridge moves visitors from the darkness to the light. The poppy field below contains 9,000 blooms, each representing 1,000 combat deaths during World War I.”

An orientation theater helps introduce the museum experience from a historical perspective.

At the time leading up to the war, people were moving away from farms to cities, expecting great opportunity and wealth, said Berkheiser. Instead, they found child labor and sweatshops.

“Another thing, this was a time when monarchies — interrelated families — were controlling the world. Citizen participation in government was just becoming understood. Nationalism was rising, replacing colonialism. Underneath, there were secret alliances and unrest.”

The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo — then the capital in the Austrian province of Bosnia — was “the trigger point,” he said. “But once the wheels of war got in motion, there were no mechanisms to stop it. There was no United Nations, where conflict resolution can take place. As a result, the world teetered on the brink, and the conflict grew out of control.”

Added Berkheiser of the history presented in the orientation theater, “It shows that regardless of whatever else historians agree or disagree on, they agree on one thing: World War I was a huge diplomatic failure. It didn’t have to happen.”

Worthy of its intent
The museum is organized chronologically in galleries that encircle the base of the Liberty Memorial like a huge donut. A prologue area describes European culture at its height, before the comparative prosperity of peace was plunged into the catastrophe of all-out war.

An illustration showing the layout of the museum.

The galleries display large-scale artifacts: the great cannons, deck guns, military vehicles, fighter aircraft and other tools of war. There are also countless smaller items: the personal items an individual soldier carried, the casualty notices, propaganda posters.

“You always come back to the human experience,” Berkheiser said. “The galleries are like a two-act play. The eastern side is 1914-1917 — pre-U.S. entry into the war. The 80-foot trench, Horizon Theater (showing decisions that led to America’s entry), a large bomb crater — are on the periphery. In the center is a timeline showing how the war progressed. The trench exhibits allow visitors to see and hear how trench warfare was fought by German, British and French troops.”

On the other side is the 1917-19 era, showing how the U.S. mobilized for the war, American battle maps, casualty figures and other exhibits. There’s even a four-mule team, showing how Missouri contributed to the war effort. An old Ford ambulance can be seen, along with another exhibit of medical facilities.

One room contains Interactive Study Stations.

“We have two issues’ tables,” said Julie Beeler, designer of the computer-driven stations, “one is for making war, the other is for making peace.

“If there’s a group, we can put the table in an activity mode, where visitors can represent different countries. They can do head-to-head activities, starting with diplomacy, negotiations, strategies and tactics, and all-out trench warfare. Then they can move over to another table and see what was happening on the home front or discover the actual outcomes of the war.”

Berkheiser emphasized that the Interactive Study Stations provide more than “just a field trip” experience.

“It’s very interactive. The visitors have only a short time to put their battle tactics in place. It’s one way of getting visitors to return again and again.”

The Horizon Theater features lifelike figures walking across a muddy landscape. The debris of war litters the foreground. In the background is a large screen, presenting visitors with the question, “Should America enter the war?” Newspaper headlines, old newsreel footage, and video presentations of historical events are examined from the perspective of the 21st century.

Berkheiser’s comments are interrupted by a simulated artillery barrage created by flashing lights and thunderous sound. He said the audio-visual part of the presentation came directly from the Liberty Memorial’s own collections.

One wall features unit photographs, showing rows of soldiers. Moveable magnifying glasses enable visitors to examine the photos and identify individual faces.

In another case an original Harley Davidson motorcycle, olive drab in color, stands unrestored. Used by couriers in both France and England, relic was discovered in an English farmhouse.

An additional view of the museum’s offerings came from James M. Barkley, education program coordinator for the Liberty Memorial Association. He pointed out an exhibit of weaponry and uniforms in use at the start of the war. Incredibly, several lances are on display, spear-like weapons of a medieval time that found their way to the battlefield during the war’s earliest days.

“Notice anything else odd about the exhibit?” Barkley asked. “All the helmets are leather. There’s not a metal helmet in the display.”

As we proceeded through the museum, the ornamental nature of the uniforms gave way to stark olive drab, the fancy headgear would change to helmets of plain metal, and the weaponry would become mechanized and increasingly lethal. There were bolt-action rifles, pistols and semi-automatic weapons, then machine guns. Next, we saw artillery pieces that indicated the technology of warfare had advanced far beyond its early stages.

Canons on display at the museum look ready for firing.

Barkley remarked on one of his favorite displays, a collection of artillery shells of various sizes along with paper currency of several nations involved in the war.

“This is nothing more than a case of money and artillery shells from smallest to largest. And the thing I like about this is how much of this had to be spent to get one of those,” he said, pointing to a shell with a diameter the size of a trashcan.

“An important part of the war was the money angle,” Barkley continued. “Most of the war was financed with the sale of bonds. After the war, the bonds weren’t worth much. You could paper your outhouse with some of it especially the German bonds, which were worthless.”

Barkley noted that there were three American inventions in the war: the machine gun, the Colt .45 pistol, and barbed wire, invented in 1874 by an Illinois farmer. An exhibit shows barbed wire and the corkscrew-shaped iron rods used to support it on the battlefield.

Another exhibit shows various machine guns, including the Maxim, a British gun designed by Hiram Maxim, an American citizen. “Maxim was noted for two major inventions,” Barkley said.

“Everyone knows the machine gun, but you don’t know the other one — the spring-loaded mousetrap,” he answered, laughing.

Finally, Barkley pointed out what he called “as an historical smoking gun” — the manifest from the Lusitania, the passenger liner sunk by the Germans, which triggered the American entry into the war in 1917.

“It was loaned to us by the Truman Library,” Barkley said. “It was said the liner was carrying only passengers; there were no weapons of war.” With the book opened to listings of cartridges, he added, “Last time I checked, cartridges are weapons of war. The Germans were right.”

The role of educating
Barkley is enthusiastic about the museum’s education role. He is working to set up curricula and make the museum an important learning experience for students throughout the region.

During the museum’s dedication ceremony, two honored guests were featured at a special symposium. More than 200 attended the event, held in the museum’s J. C. Nichols Auditorium.

Sir John Keegan, author of The First World War, a definitive history of the period, was the first to speak. Keegan’s book has been a major inspiration and reference in the development of the National World War I Museum and available in the museum’s bookstore. His father and two uncles fought in the war, and he spoke from the perspective of an English citizen. Calling the war “monstrous and morbid,” he said, “The war destroyed the optimistic culture of the European continent.”

Keegan said that Europeans would be astonished to find the Liberty Memorial at the gateway to America’s great plains. “It seems an unlikely location, particularly because it has no equivalent in our culture.”

A mule display shows Missouri's contribution to the war.

The program was concluded with remarks from Appelbaum, the museum designer, who is known throughout the world as a master of his craft. During the last 25 years, Appelbaum has been involved in more than 120 museum projects, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, AR, and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Appelbaum first began working on the National World War I Museum in 1995.

“The museum is positioned as a house of memory,” he said. “It’s here because a dedicated group of private citizens made it their business to take on a national task. And they did it with a sense of obligation to remember and honor not only those that served, but to remember them for the peace they fought for.”

Although he described the museum as having one of the greatest collections of World War I artifacts in the world, Appelbaum’s vision is not limited to artifacts and static displays.

“This museum will not just put objects on display,” he said. “It will put whole events on display. It promises to be one of the most exciting museums in the country.”

At the end of our tour, Berkheiser expressed his hopes concerning how the museum would affect and inspire Americans, particularly in citizens becoming more active in helping their leaders decide on major issues.

“I think the museum shows that the veneer of civilization is pretty thin,” he said. “Revenge is an interesting part of the problem. Most of us want peace, but many would say I’ll get my revenge first, and then we’ll go from there.”

Finally, Berkheiser asked aloud, “Why a World War I museum?” He mused that there are only a handful of World War I survivors. “But it’s not just about war, and it’s not just about the veterans of World War I.

“The Memorial tells you who did what, when, and where. The museum tells the how and why. It puts us in the experience.”

It was clear from what Berkheiser said that from his perspective as a professional soldier, the mission of the museum was to promote peace. With that in mind, Appelbaum’s guiding principle of building a museum that “tells you about yourself” becomes even more important.

For more information on the National World War I Museum, go to or phone 816-784-1918.

Ken Weyand can be contacted at

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