The World War 1 Museum

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In my history classes in Junior High and High School, we spent plenty of time covering World War 2. In retrospect, I realize that the reason people love to talk about World War 2 is that it is the closest thing in history to a real life battle between good and evil. Nearly every other war, struggle, or conflict, no matter how it is portrayed in the history books, is far more nuanced.

What I learned about World War 1 can be rudamentally summed up into the following sequence of events….

  1. Some archduke got assassinated
  2. There were so many entangling alliances that countries one by one started declaring war on one another
  3. There were these trenches and a lot of people died
  4. America came in and saved the day

I later read that World War 1 may be way more significant than the amount of coverage it got in history class.  So, when I found out that Kansas City had a museum dedicated exclusively to World War One, I decided it was worth a visit.

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The main part of the museum depicts the war’s events in chronological order. Visitors walk through the museum, with the chronological order of events displayed on one side and a mixture of war artifacts and other exhibits on the other.

The museum is pretty well balanced between the global USA-specific perspectives. The first section is dedicated to the events before the United States entered the war (1914-1916).  In the middle, a video describes the sequence of events that lead to our entry into the war. The final section is dedicated to the events of 1917 and 1918, as well as how the world was changed by the war.

To truly get the most out of a visit to this museum, I would recommend setting aside at least a couple of hours to read through the full list of chronological events.  If you are like me, and always have a burning need to both think and talk through the implications of everything you read, an additional hour might be necessary.

I came away from this museum with an even greater understanding of how nuanced this war was. First of all, in some ways, this war is often seen in a historical context as inevitable. Nationalism was on the rise, there were ongoing technological and geopolitical changes, and there were all of those alliances. But, the war also started by accident! The mission to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand was aborted. However, the assassins that shot him did not get the message, and assassinated him anyways. This one event would trigger a cascading of war declarations that would descend nearly the entire world into war!

Also, in most wars there is one side that wins and another that loses. While this war had a winning and losing side, there were some exceptions. For example, Russia sided with the alliance that won the war. But, their war was on a different front, and, with a revolution at home that caused them to exit the war 18 months prior to the war’s conclusion, well, they lost. They clearly lost, and lost territory. Italy, the perpetual side switcher of Europe, also pretty much lost. And, the Serbians and Slavs, subjected to Austro-Hungarian rule, despite being on the losing side, won- they won their own nations.

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By the end of the day my mind was feeling, well, just busy. While looking backwards, 100 years in time, my mind kept drifting to the future. In a way, World War 1 created the modern world.  It created the shapes of many of our countries as they are today, but also solidified the concept of the modern nation. Before that there were far more empires, as well as loosely bound city-states. There are also a frightening number of parallels between the world leading up to World War 1 and the world today.

I just kept thinking about what is ahead in the context of what had already occurred. The world was not always the way it is today. It would be foolish to assume it won’t change in the coming years. Three decades from now, the very way our society is organized could be quite different from what we know today.

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The museum also had several special exhibits, the best of which covered how the war-torn French reacted to the United States entering the war in 1917. Children in school throughout France were asked to draw pictures, and write essays, describing how the U.S. entry in to the war made them feel.

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Why is it that we commonly get what we want at the wrong time? I remember joining alongside my classmates in school in groaning when asked to do additional assignments such as this one. Now that I am a full fledged adult, I often desire nothing more than to spend my days doing the kinds of things my teachers would ask me to do in school, rather the work I must do to earn a living. I imagine many young adults feeling the same way.

The other special exhibits at the museum covered revolutions and signs of how the world was changing, murals, maps of the conflict, artifacts such as Wilson’s war proclamation, and posters encouraging people at home to support the war effort.

The museum does contrast with some of the more recently built museums I have visited. Museums built or fully updated in the past ten years tend to have two distinctions from older museums.

  1. Far more interactive exhibits, and interactive exhibits geared not just toward children but also towards adults.
  2. A greater willingness to take a somewhat critical view of history from the protagonist perspective, such as the Colorado History Center’s exhibits about Japanese Internment Camps, racial resentment in Denver, and the Sand Creek Massacre.

This museum largely lacked these two features. There were only a couple of interactive exhibits, and they were quite basic.

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The war posters, both in the main section and the special exhibits, refrained from depicting the extremely negative portrayal of German-Americans during the war effort, sticking to propaganda posters encouraging citizens to buy bonds and such.

Likewise, the censorship and jailing of political opponents under the Wilson administration (among its other misgivings) are really not touched upon. Still, I came into my visit to this museum with a hard opinion that our entry into this war was a mistake, and was at least able to see a new perspective on this when reading all of the facts here at the World War 1 museum.

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