The Great War gets an official museum of its own

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KANSAS CITY, Mo.--It would have been easy for the new National World War I Museum, which opens here this week, to focus primarily on America's relatively minor role in the first "war to end all wars." Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Force, and a World War I artillery captain named Harry Truman were both native Missourians. Dwight Eisenhower, raised in neighboring Kansas, also fought in the Great War, as did a cavalryman-turned-tanker named George Patton, who had attended the Mounted School at Fort Riley, Kan.

Much to its credit, the museum chose historical accuracy over this myopic focus. The result is a compelling and comprehensive presentation that leaves visitors with a clear understanding of the forces that led to the war, the barbarism of the world's first mechanized industrial warfare, and the unresolved disputes that sowed the seeds for future conflicts, including some that are in the headlines today.

Your first question may be, "Why Kansas City?" The Liberty Memorial, a solemn limestone obelisk and promenade, was commissioned and built in the 1920s to commemorate World War I. Over the years, the memorial foundation has been unofficially collecting artifacts from the war. "Unofficially" because up until now there had been no national museum. With nowhere else to go, uniforms, weapons, diaries and the like (although still no tank) found their way to the memorial. Over the past few years, the memorial was renovated and the museum added, all at a cost of about $100 million, raised through a local sales tax, municipal bonds and private donations. It was money well spent.
Upon entering, visitors cross a glass-floor bridge, under which are planted 9,000 poppies, each one representing 1,000 of World War I's nine million combat deaths (there were also an estimated five million civilian casualties). It's a somber beginning for a journey that is anything but uplifting, and just one of the outstanding features of the Ralph Applebaum-designed space.

An introductory film explains the factors that led to World War I: Colonization in search of resources to feed an increasingly industrialized Europe. Add in fervent nationalism fueled by increasingly vitriolic propaganda and it's easy to see how young men eagerly signed up to cross borders, bayonets fixed, to impale their neighbors. But instead of a quick and glorious victory, what they got was three years of bloody stalemate.

The museum has the usual artifacts--uniforms, firearms and cannon. There's also an informative timeline that takes visitors from the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the June 1919 ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Most of the pieces are displayed in traditional glass cases with informative placards. But it's the storytelling and interactive presentations that have made many modern museums work, and this one succeeds on all fronts.

Indeed, it's often facts and figures that overwhelm visitors. Here, the curators have chosen only the most pertinent--and illuminating--figures and presented them in a way that's easy to understand. For instance, a giant chart lists the number of troops from each country and the number of casualties they suffered. Of the 8.4 million Frenchmen who went to war, 4.5 million were either killed or wounded. As a result, 1 out of 3 Frenchmen age 18 to 30 died by 1917....

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