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As WWI centennial approaches, Mo. museum to take center stage

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The approaching centennial of the First World War will draw a lot of attention to Kansas City, home of the largest and oldest repository of information about the Great War this side of the Imperial War Museums in London.

Officials at the Liberty Memorial are planning to make the most of it.

“This is the time to assert the National World War I Museum,” said Thomas Butch, the new chairman of the Liberty Memorial Association Board of Trustees. “It is the opportunity to gather the spotlight in a way that won’t repeat itself.”

The Society for Military History will draw an estimated 600 scholars to Kansas City for its annual meeting in April. The German Studies Association is expected to draw twice that number for its annual conference here in September.

The World War I Centennial Commission, created by Congress and anchored at the Liberty Memorial, will hold a conference here in August, to be streamed on the Web, titled “Guns of August.”

Matthew Naylor, the president of the National World War I Museum, said all the activity is fitting to remember and to derive meaning from “this cauldron of activities around the early part of the last century resulting in World War I and the most dramatic period of social change in human history.”

Not only was World War I the first modern mechanized conflict, it resulted in the collapse of empires and the advent of democracy in Europe and elsewhere, the deconstruction of colonialism and the beginning of the “American century.”

It also intersected with revolutions in communications and in social expectations.

There will be a burst of interest on June 28, the anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that led to the mobilization of the great powers and the beginning of hostilities in August 1914.

“The world really came asunder during that period,” Naylor said.

Over the next four years, there will be more academic conferences, exhibitions, performances and maybe even a historically accurate World War I video game.

There will be another peak of interest in 2017, the centenary of the U.S. entry into the war, and again in 2018 with the anniversary of the armistice.

That may offer the only appropriate occasion for celebration — as opposed to commemoration — during the entire centennial period.

For the private Liberty Memorial Association, which manages the publicly owned monument, the observance is a time to strengthen the National World War I Museum’s financial foundation as well as its prestige.

“We are a very new museum, which in one sense is hard for people to fathom since the monument has been there since the 1920s,” Butch said. “But the museum is just seven years old.”

Kansas Citians raised $2.5 million in 1919 to create the Liberty Memorial, which was dedicated in 1926.

Space for the museum was created during restoration of the once-crumbling memorial. The monument reopened in 2002, and the museum opened in 2006.

Butch, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Waddell & Reed Financial Inc., has been on the museum’s board of trustees since 2009 and became chairman in November. His company sponsored a touring version of the museum in 2011-12 that garnered publicity across the country.

Naylor, former head of the humanitarian organization Outreach International, became president and chief executive officer of the museum in June. He has been thinking about its future and has come up with more than a dozen “what ifs,” as in what if the National World War I Museum could engage 1 million young people to learn and think about the war?

The museum already offers curricula to teachers for classroom studies, but it also plans to team with National History Day, an academic program that draws more than half a million students into local, state and national competition. The museum here plans to sponsor an award for projects dealing with World War I, Naylor said.

The museum also is providing content for the U.S. Academic Decathlon, a separate scholastic competition for high school students. The theme this year is World War I.

In addition, the museum is in discussions with a video game company that is creating a World War I game based on a series of true-to-life challenges for the player to work through.

Naylor envisions the museum using its research center to build an Internet platform through which people could learn about their ancestors who served in the war. It would also allow people to add information and stories about their relatives, all of which could be cross-referenced and accessed by others doing their own family or scholarly research.

The museum would like to raise its profile internationally with an honorary advisory board of prominent people. That would help in building an international speaker series that could potentially attract former presidents, prime ministers and foreign secretaries to Kansas City.

“What if, after Angela Merkel was no longer chancellor of Germany, we were able to have her here talking about growing up in the East in the shadow of World War I?” Naylor asked.

Other ideas include creating an artist-in-residence program at the museum to encourage creative expressions of the war experiences. The museum could also create a grant program for scholars to study at the archives here and produce academic works that would add to our understanding of the war.

Naylor outlined his ideas to 100 or so members of the Liberty Memorial Association at its annual meeting in November. Their feedback is being collated and will help in setting priorities.

Meanwhile, fundraising continues for a new, $4 million exhibit space on the east side of the below-ground museum that could be a magnet for prestigious traveling shows. Naming rights for the space are still available.

Progress in all those initiatives can only be enhanced by the approaching centennial.

“Here’s a great opportunity for Kansas City to assert itself nationally and to assert its civic pride,” Naylor said, “and to claim the fact that we have America’s National World War I Museum and memorial here in Kansas City because of the citizenry initiative.

“And it’s the best in the country if not the world,” Naylor continued. “We ought to claim that.”

Coming up

Some events planned by the Liberty Memorial:

  • Exhibit “On the Brink,” March to September 2014
  • Exhibit “Over by Christmas,” May 2014 to April 2015
  • Webcast conference “Guns of August,” Aug. 12-14, 2014
  • Touring exhibit “The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I,” October 2014 to March 2015
  • Online exhibit “Christmas Truce,” November 2014
     

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