High-tech home for an old war

One of the world's great collections of World War I artifacts has an updated venue in Kansas City.

World War I has been pulled into the 21st century by a just-opened museum here that aims to deliver a highly tactile, thought- provoking experience to visitors. The National World War I Museum, created by one of the world's premier museum-exhibit designers, occupies space directly below the recently restored and expanded Liberty Memorial. Eleven years in the making, the museum vividly tells the story of the four-year global catastrophe that reshaped the world.

Visitors expecting a dusty-helmet displays are in for a surprise. Using the latest in museology – state-of-the-art exhibit design supported by scholarship, the latest in audio, video, and computer technology, plus a vast collection of World War I artifacts and a large measure of showmanship – the museum offers visitors the sights and sounds of the first "modern" war.

Designed by the New York-based firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the 30,000-square-foot museum's doughnut-shaped exhibition space is organized in a series of concentric circles around the underground portion of the memorial's 217-foot tower. Visitors enter the exhibits from the lobby by crossing a glass bridge over a "field" of 9,000 silk poppies, representing the 9 million combatants who died. A 10-minute orientation video reviews the events that led up to the war.

The first half of the museum covers the period from the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 to early 1917, just prior to when the United States entered the war. The second half focuses on US participation. The exhibits are arranged chronologically, but the museum is laid out so that visitors don't have to follow a single path. They can package their own experience.

The museum's centerpiece is the Horizon Theater, with its 100-foot-long, highly detailed tableau of no man's land – the unclaimed ground between opposing trenches – complete with four British soldiers trudging along duck boards through a muddy, devastated landscape littered with abandoned artillery and the detritus of war. Onto a long canvas screen behind, and blending with the tableau, sound and images tell of America's decision to enter the European conflict and the environment in which the soldiers found themselves. Lighting and sound effects dramatically simulate the horror that was the Western Front.

Other large environmental exhibits include a walk-in bomb crater 15-foot deep and an 80-foot-long replica of a troop trench in various stages of degradation.

At two interactive media tables, visitors can take part in activities that deal with diplomacy and the forming of alliances and the tactics and strategies of war. They can learn about aerial photography and camouflage, learn how a Lewis machine gun operated, create a propaganda poster, or take a crack at decoding the Zimmerman Telegram. The infamous German communiqué tried to persuade Mexico to go to war against the US, but served instead to fuel the American public's anger toward Germany. Extensive diagrams, graphs, and maps throughout the galleries, along with a month-by-month timeline, relate factual information about the war. Animated video panels illustrate major battles.

"People can really determine their own experience because there's really something here for everybody," says Steve Berkheiser, executive director of the Liberty Memorial Association.

Until now, only a tiny fraction of the Liberty Memorial Association's vast collection of more than 100,000 objects has been seen by the public. The collection, one of the best in the world, encompasses the entire material culture of the Great War and has been amassed since the memorial's inception in 1918. About 3,500 of those objects are now on display, from a five-ton British Naval Deck gun to the contents of a soldier's pockets.

More than anything, the museum brings the global war down to an individual level. Everywhere, the images and voices of those who participated in the war confront the visitor, from interactive stations with portraits of war casualties; to the trench, where soldiers describe their living conditions; to sound kiosks, where visitors can hear readings of poetry, letters, journals, and eyewitness accounts of the war.

"From the beginning, we were conscious of making this a museum where you are really guided through and told the history by the people who were there," says Doran Cart, the museum's curator. "History is not just facts in a book. History is people. They create it. That, to me, is probably the most important thing. It's to really listen to the voices of the people who took part in the cataclysmic event of the early 20th century."

The opening of the museum completes an ambitious, $102 million project to restore and expand the Liberty Memorial, the world's largest memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War I. The memorial first took hold soon after the Armistice ended the fighting on Nov. 11, 1918. Back then, the people of Kansas City, in a burst of patriotic ardor, raised $2.5 million for a memorial in just 10 days through public subscription. The original design of the art-deco masterpiece included a small exhibition hall as well as a memorial hall and an observation deck atop the central tower. The memorial was closed in 1994 for a massive restoration and expansion, which, in addition to the new museum space, includes a 20,000-square-foot research center, collection storage space, and other amenities.

In September, the Liberty Memorial was named a National Historic Landmark by US Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne. Congress officially designated the National World War I Museum in 2004. The memorial has been averaging 40,000 paid admissions annually for the past few years. Officials expect that number to triple over the next year.

Like the Great War itself, the National World War I Museum leaves many questions unanswered. It encourages visitors to ponder ideas of courage, service, the duties of citizenship, sacrifice, democracy, and peace.

"Is peace possible?" asks Mr. Berkheiser, a retired Marine Corps general who served in Vietnam. "That's the question that visitors will have when they leave. We can't say this museum or any museum is going to change the fabric of our society, but we hope it causes people to pause and reflect."

Designing a safe place for hard questions

Ralph Appelbaum, principal of the design firm that bears his name, is the mastermind behind the new National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Ralph Appelbaum Associates is the largest and one of the best-known interpretive museum design firms in the world.

Mr. Appelbaum has created more than 100 installations around the world. Perhaps his most acclaimed project is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1993. Not content merely to present visitors with the facts of the events, Appelbaum integrated the displays in the Holocaust Museum with the building's architecture and used a variety of techniques to tell a powerful story and craft a singular experience for the visitor. One of the most haunting displays is a huge mound of shoes that belonged to anonymous Holocaust victims.

"It's an emotional ride," says Polly McKenna-Cress, chair of the museum studies department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. "It was a pivotal and critical moment in museum exhibit history. It raised the bar in terms of museum exhibition design and content. It changed the field dramatically."

In working on the National World War I Museum, as with other projects, Appelbaum sees himself and his army of 70-plus associates as facilitators.

"What we wanted to do was invest the exhibit with a strong sense of personality and purpose," he says in a phone interview. "The best museums are inherently open-ended. They tend to be thought-provoking, emotionally effective – inspirational, sometimes. They get people thinking and talking, and they carry out that conversation beyond the museum."

Appelbaum is an advocate for the museum as social tool, where information can be imparted at many levels. Subjects steeped in moral gravity – war, genocide – are more approachable in a museum setting.

"You're in a place that is infinitely safe, because museums are safe places in the public fabric," he notes. "In museums, you relax a little bit because you're being cared for and protected. Museums are designed to make you receptive. And that receptiveness can be used to deliver high-value messages."

As civics disappears more and more from US classrooms, Appelbaum sees museums as a way to fill the breach. "The goal is you want people to come in as visitors, but leave as better-informed citizens."

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