At the end of June 1914, the world changed dramatically. First there was the assassination of Archiduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenburg. The Austrian government suspects that Serbia is responsible. A month later, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and World War I began. Throughout August 1914, the various European countries declared war on each other and by the middle of the month, several battles throughout France and Belgium occurred.
Now, with the centennial of the start of World War I, the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial and its staff prepare for a spotlight to be turned toward Kansas City. “During the commemoration, the citizenry of Kansas City will find a new attention as many around the world turn their eyes toward us and this incredible story housed here,” explains Dr. Matthew Naylor, president and CEO. “There will also be many opportunities to engage with the museum and the legacy.”The commemoration period is 2014 to 2019 as World War I went from 1914 to 1918 with the ensuing peace process spilling into 1919 including the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1919, Kansas City leaders and citizens raised more than $2.5 million in just 10 days. The equivalent is roughly $34 million today. Construction was completed in 1926 and was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in front of more than 150,000 people. The centennial commemoration of World War I seems logical, but the more paramount honors go to the many Kansas Citians who facilitated the construction of Liberty Memorial nearly 100 years ago.
Senior Curator Doran Cart has been with the museum for 24 years. He has been with museum during the highs and lows. He helped with the two recent efforts for the restoration and expansion. “The overwhelming support of the city has always pleased me. We are a landmark that has withstood many high and low tides.”
During the 1950s and 60s, despite the ongoing support of the people of Kansas City, the maintenance and running costs for the Memorial proved to be overwhelming The Memorial fell into disrepair, as did some civic landmarks such as Union Station. But once again, the people responded to revitalize and restore the Memorial, Cart says.
By 1994, the memorial was closed due to safety concerns. By 1998, a sales tax supported the restoration. In addition to revitalization, plans took shape to expand the museum to showcase the WWI-related objects and documents. Through the tax and other state and national funding, more than $102 million was raised for the restoration and expansion. In 2004, the Museum was designated by Congress as the nation’s official World War I Museum, and construction started on a new 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art museum and the Edward Jones Research Center underneath the Liberty Memorial’s main courtyard.
The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial opened in 2006 to national acclaim. In more than eight years, the museum has had more than 1 million visitors including former Vice President Dick Cheney, General Colin Powell, President Barack Obama (as a presidential candidate in 2008), Senator John McCain and actor and singer Kevin Costner. Additionally, Frank Buckles, America’s last surviving WWI veteran, visited the Museum over Memorial Day weekend in 2008.
One of Cart’s favorite special exhibitions came in the form of Man & Machine: The German Soldier in World War I. “We researched some and found that there has been no such exhibition from the viewpoint of the common German soldier. It was groundbreaking. We remember the people involved in the war and from the era. We show the things created and in that aspect, my mantra is to show the power of the object.”
Within that power, Cart wants the visitor to find some sort of experience. “We seek ways to interpret the cataclysmic event that was World War I and the aftermath. You have to learn from the past and within that past, we can learn from the economy, societies and wars. The centennial will also cover part of the Russian Revolution. That will be interesting when we get there and what we will talk about at that point.”
Cart also shares some of the “deliberate” choices made within the museum. The first exhibition that visitors see is the portrait wall. “Each photograph has the eyes straight forward. They are looking right at you and making eye contact. Sometimes you can see a reflection of yourself as the image changes. It is a strong view and a powerful compelling way to begin one’s trip through the museum.”
For 94 years the Museum has been collecting items from World War I. Of course, Cart likes each time a requested package arrives on his desk. He recently received medals bestowed on a German soldier in 1916. “When we get around to the centennial of 1916, these medals could go on exhibit, but the other exciting aspect of this donation is that I now know about this soldier’s unit. My goal is to always make exhibitions interesting to visitors. I want visitors to learn something. Education is key, whether it is from a tour or a special exhibition especially during the centennial celebration.”
Some of the first objects came into the museum from foreign governments. Maps were sent by the Japanese and fragments from the Cathedral of Reims, France. German shellfire during the early engagement on Sept. 20, 1914 devastated the cathedral. “We benefit from their foresight almost 100 years later,” Cart says. “As collections were developed, many around the world knew that this museum would be a worldwide resource.”
Cart says the French trench exhibit’s rat is an aspect that many high schoolers remember. “Like them, I still see items or exhibitions in a new light. It might be the Russian soldier’s cap or the French tank. Each item tells a story and that’s why we still collect because we can add to that story. World War I was a cataclysmic event and to keep explaining that, we continue to gather documents and aim to best capture that generation. The success comes when visitors have a moment of understanding here.” That flows into another of Cart’s favorites – Inside the Doughboy’s Pack. “It is all about humanity and what story each item tells,” he says.
Attendance in 2013 was more than 152,000 and that does not include those who visited the park surrounding the museum or spent time looking at The Great Frieze, located on the North Wall, which measures 488 feet by 48 feet and represents the progression of mankind from war to peace or the Dedication Wall, which holds the bronze busts of the five Allied leaders present during the site dedication on November 1, 1921: Gen. Baron Jacques of Belgium, Gen. Armando Diaz of Italy, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, Gen. John J. Pershing of the United States, and Sir Admiral Earl David Beatty of Great Britain.
As of mid-May 2014, the attendance was just shy of 50,000. However, those numbers could skyrocket as the Museum is embarking on a $5 million capital campaign to build a new 5,000 square foot exhibition gallery. “We could see traveling exhibitions that will add to our diversity,” Naylor says. Along with additional space, more than 20,000 items from the Museum’s collection have been digitized and individuals from more than 80 countries around the world have explored the online database.
The museum has 30 staff and 200 volunteers. The mission is to learn and make meaning of those who sacrificed for the greater good. “Remembering requires your heart. My grandfather had lung damage,” Naylor says. “I saw a letter from him that was dated from 1917 and I read words of fear and courage. In making meaning of this museum, we explore what makes up a healthy civic life. Who needs to be around the table?
“During the commemoration, we want to again have the metropolitan community involved. When the community came together right after World War I ended, there was almost a sense of adventure that folks wanted to be involved in activities that matter,” Naylor says.
“The community showed incredible foresight in 1919 to build a monument that not only honored those who fought, but served as a monument to peace.” When the building and museum fell into disrepair, that same sense of unity came back in the 1990s with successful votes to support the renovation. “We honor those who served. We create an environment that allows a compelling story to be told and we don’t tell a parochial story. It is an encompassing story and it can be complicated, but we do our best to be good stewards of this legacy.”
The story told at the museum is one told with reverence. “There is some exhibit space that speaks to everyone. There are women who put their shoulders to the wheel and went to work in the factories and on farms,” Naylor says. “There were nurses and others who went to the front as well.” As a matter of fact, one of his favorite images on The Great Frieze is that of the nurse with the injured. “That whole wall is an architectural wonder.” Naylor also appreciates the bunker behind the French tank. “The spotlight will turn to us for the next five years.”
Every continent was affected by World War I. By virtue of colonization, troops from India and Australia came to fight. The other changes still ripple into today with the advances in medicine, aeronautics, energy and geopolitics. “Even Civil Rights moved to the forefront as Harry S. Truman served as a lieutenant in World War I,” Naylor says. “What he saw with segregated troops spurred his decision to work toward the armed forces integration that came around in 1948.”
The centennial will mark a chance to remember courage and for the community to engage, pause and converse. “We can help with that reflection. So often, people leave here and talk. The idea is to look at our civic life and how we work toward a world of peace,” Naylor says. “During these five years, people will have a chance to look at medals, images, stories in a new light. We have the obligation to tell stories that engage. Look at the current exhibit, Over By Christmas: August-December 1914 has a romanticism that many thought the war would be over in a few days or at least a few months.”
The exhibit is open now through March 29, 2015. Another exhibit that looks at the early impetus called On the Brink: A Month That Changed the World is open through Sept. 14 of this year. The exhibition looks at the underground organizations, diplomatic communications and international newspaper reporting of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and its political aftershock.
The museum and the park grounds are Kansas City’s front porch, Naylor explains. “It’s a place to make family memories. The park is part of presenting experiences, especially as families talk and remember.”