National WWI MuseumUpdated: March 18, 2021
The National World War One Museum official site describes the institution as “America’s only museum dedicated to sharing the stories of the Great War through the eyes of those who lived it.” Located in Kansas City, Missouri, this museum has a history that goes all the way to the days immediately following WWI, as we’ll explore below.
About World War One
Some 70 million troops fought in World War One from July 1914 to November 1918. Some nine million troops were killed alongside some 13 million civilians. The war began as the result of the assassination of Austrian-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajavo.
Austria/Hungary issued demands, which were not met, and soon a military crisis in the Balkans would engulf much of Europe. Two coalitions began fighting–one consisting of France, Britain, and Russia and the other consisting of Germany, Austria/Hungary, and Italy.
America stayed out of the conflict until 1917, choosing to supply arms to Allied forces until Germany began sinking U.S. merchant ships and trying to draw other countries into the conflict against the United States.
America declared war on Germany in 1917, and something known as the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918 saw tens of thousands of American troops arriving to the conflict on a daily basis; Kaiser Willhelm abdicated and signed an armistice in November 1918, effectively ending World War One.
A Brief History Of the National WWI Museum
Soon after the end of WWI, a group of Kansas City residents banded together to create the Liberty Memorial Association, for the purpose of erecting a World War One memorial to honor those who served in what is still known today as “The Great War” and less recently (and not at all accurately), “The War To End All Wars”.
In 1919, this association was responsible for fundraising to the tune of two and a half million 1919 dollars raised, according to some sources, in less than 14 days!
A few years later in 1921 the fruits of this labor resulted in a groundbreaking ceremony in front of hundreds of thousands of onlookers including Vice President Calvin Coolidge, thousands of members of the American Legion, and military luminaries from Italy, France, and Belgium.
Author David McCullough notes in his book, Truman, that one veteran who was selected to present flags to the military dignitaries was none other than future President of the United States Harry S. Truman, who would, as part of his duties as President in 1961, rededicate the memorial.
Why so much discussion about this memorial and not the museum itself?
Some important developments concerning the memorial were instrumental in the creation of the museum, starting with the memorial’s closure in 1994–the site had developed problems with age and had actually become a source of shame for the community.
That resulted in a limited sales tax initiative to help fund improvements. That money along with other fundraising resulting in some one hundred million dollars in improvement funds.
In 2004, Congress declared the Liberty Memorial museum to be the nation’s official World War I Museum. As a result an ambitious expansion began to create an 80,000 square foot expansion for the site. In 2006 when the project was completed the Liberty Memorial was formally designated as a National Historic Landmark.
President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2014 recognizing the site as a ‘World War I Museum and Memorial. This act brought a redesignation of the site as the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
What You’ll Find At The National World War One Museum
Like many good museums, there is a diverse range of displays, films, tours, installations, and images that represent the era, the people, the hardware, and the politics behind World War One. The museum boasts a global perspective on the war, providing a look at the motivations that drove the various opposing forces during the conflict.
The museum features a “main gallery” that includes a chronology of the war, a look at military hardware including a display of the French Renault FT-17 tank, you can tour life-sized WW1 trenches, and there’s also a display that shows what happens to a home hit by a WW1-era bomb.
There is a good online collection of virtual World War One exhibits and displays for those who cannot get to the museum in person. At the time of this writing those features include a look at the volunteers of World War One and a display of letters and even vintage-era recipes popular at the time. Another online exhibit chronicles the legendary Christmas Truce of 1914.
Then there are the “traveling” exhibits and limited-time only options. These offerings change regularly but individual displays may be on-site for extended periods of time.
At press time those options include displays of WW1-era collections from around the globe (the 100 Years Of Collecting exhibit) as well as Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI, which explores the roles of women in “war industries” of the time.
The Edward Jones Research Center
The Edward Jones Research Center is a facility offering research and learning resources for “all who are interested in learning more about the Great War” including the general public but also graduate students and education professionals, writers, family historians and genealogists, etc.
The Center archives more than 300,000 documents and objects and features more than 10,000 library titles. These resources are all free, there is no admission charged to access these resources.
But all archival needs must be scheduled in advance. If you wish to view items from the archive that are not part of the 10,000-plus library titles, make an appointment with the museum’s curatorial staff by calling 816.888.8120.
You can view the National WWI Museum and Memorial’s online collections database to search portions of the global collection that have been digitized–this is unfortunately only a small representation of the vast collection the museum has gathered since 1920 but there is an ongoing digitization effort so if you don’t find the resources you need online, contact the museum to see if there are plans to add those resources to the online archive.
You can begin your search with the museum’s collection of “random images” or go straight to the keyword search tool to begin exploring this archive from World War One.
Planning Your Visit To The World War One Museum
Days and hours for the National World War One Museum and Memorial vary depending on the time of year but in summer the museum is open daily.
National WWI Museum and Memorial
2 Memorial Drive
Kansas City, MO 64108
Amateur photography is permitted with cell phones, non-flash handheld cameras and no-light video allowed. No tripods are permitted without prior authorization. Photos must be for private use only and no professional photography inside the museum is allowed without permission.
The Official National WW1 Museum and Archive Overview Video
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News