As preparations continue to mark the 2017 centenary of America’s entry into the First World War, the United States’ National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, has announced plans for a major expansion of its gallery space. Its mission: to further explain the global scope of the conflict through a range of new visiting exhibitions. The museum is one of a host of national institutions gearing up for commemorations. But CN’s Patrick Gregory asks if the Centennial will mark a change in attitudes towards the war in America - and any more interest in the role it played.
The National World War I Museum's planned expansion is the result of its recent and highly successful Call to Duty fundraising drive, which saw a host of local institutions and benefactors heeding the museum’s call.
Kansas City has long enjoyed its reputation as one the centres for remembrance of the war, a connection which stretches all the back all the way back to the immediate post-war years.
As with many other cities and states the length and breadth of the country, Kansas City had contributed its bit to the pre-1917 volunteering effort and later militarily as America mobilised itself with men and materiel. Famous Missouri alumni serving on the front line included future President Harry Truman, earning his spurs as an artillery commander in France.
But Kansas City managed to stand out in the immediate post-war years and in the decades since in its remembrance of the conflict. Before the first armistice had been even been marked in America a fundraising initiative had begun to raise a permanent – and suitably dramatic – memorial. The result after many years of fundraising effort and deliberations was the unveiling in 1926 of the Liberty Memorial, a 217-foot granite obelisk, honouring the memory of the war dead.
The memorial retained its status as a lasting tribute to the fallen over the decades, housing in galleries sizeable portions of the epic Pantheon de la Guerre war installation.
But when a decade ago a larger institution was born out of it, the Liberty Memorial expanded to become a part of the new National World War I Museum to further the size and scope of the displays which could be housed in the Memorial’s older Exhibit and Memory Halls. A huge collection of World War I artefacts had been assembled over the decades and the new museum was intended to establish a more all-encompassing role, as Museum Director Matthew Naylor explains:
"The museum is global in its scope. It tells the story of the World War I chronologically, not just in U.S. terms. It’s not parochial in that sense. We have the most diverse content of any World War I museums in the world because we collect globally and we have a global narrative. We take our as a curator of this key part of the world’s recent history very seriously. We want to help expand the thinking and understanding of the Great War, and the lasting impact it has."
But as part of that thinking, and to add to the type and number of exhibitions the museum would be able to host - Naylor decided to opt for further expansion. Hence a recent Call to Duty fundraising campaign which has so far netted $12.5 million in grants: gifts from local philanthropists, mainly family foundations. An estimated $5-6 million will be used to build a new gallery which it's hoped will be ready for use by early 1918.
"Our objective is to bring new content here’, says Naylor ‘and to ensure we have return audiences. We believe the new gallery will help us do that because it’ll broaden the scope of loans from other museums – exhibitions from other countries – which might otherwise not come to the U.S. or Kansas City."
The museum expansion is part of a host of drives by bodies readying America for the centenary less than a year away. Other major projects include the plans for the National World War I Memorial, being overseen in Washington by the Centennial Commission, and the recent rededication of the monument to the American Lafayette Escadrille outside Paris, restored with the help of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
But if such energy is going into remembrance at a national and institutional level, there nonetheless exists a longstanding resignation among many in academic life and older public servants, in veterans’ associations and with military history enthusiasts, that the First World War remains something of a Cinderella figure in the panoply of America’s conflicts.
In his book The Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance 1919-1941, Professor Steven Trout of the University of South Alabama draws on various rueful reflections from other writers who have pushed back at this apparent indifference. He quotes Mark Snell in his Unknown Soldiers: The American Expeditionary Force in Memory and Remembrance, who pithily asserts: ‘The problem with the American memory of World War I is that there seems to be none’. And from Edward Lengel in the opening to his book on the Americans’ Meuse-Argonne campaign, To Conquer Hell, who laments: ’Johnny Reb, Billy Yank and the GI live forever in the American psyche. The Doughboy has been forgotten.’
It is an attitude which Trout himself seeks – at least in part – to challenge. He points out that the last decade has seen the largest number of books produced on the First World War in 80 years, and, he says, a ‘forgotten’ war would not really be described like that anyway: it would not be described at all. Yet Trout does concede that the First World War does occupy an odd and unsettled position in American culture.
Military history enthusiasts like Mike Hanlon, editor of the online publications St Mihiel Tripwire and Roads to the Great War – has devoted the best part of 25 years towards the study and remembrance of the war, and he agrees with the sentiments of Snell and Lengel, saying he has so far detected little in the way of a mood swing as the Centenary approaches:
"In America, the war has tended to be bracketed in the second tier of conflicts the country has been involved with, with the top tier occupied by the Second World War, the Civil War and the War of Independence.
"I’ve been hoping that the approaching Centennial would change all that. But there hasn’t been that moment yet, like the great poppy exhibition staged in London at the Tower of London back in 2014. The Centennial Commission in Washington is doing a lot of good work, the World War I Museum in Kansas City is doing a lot of good work. Likewise, the American Battle Monuments Commission. So at that kind of national institution level things are being done. But beyond that there isn’t the necessary top-down push on the First World War - or history generally - which we need from corporations, universities, political leaders or from the creative industries in Hollywood or the news media."
With still almost a year to run until the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement – and two and a half years of the war centenary to go – Hanlon remains hopeful that the crowds will indeed flock to Kansas City and galleries the length and breadth of the country from his native California across to Washington D.C. but he remains sober in his assessment:
"I’ve given dozens of talks over the years, organised many tours and conferences, and so I know that there are always things which get people interested and stimulated. People are always receptive to learning about the 1914-18 war but there just isn’t a great body of work which the public are familiar with. What the ordinary man and woman knows about World War I is much less than in Europe."
Patrick Gregory is co-author with Elizabeth Nurser of An American on the Western Front: The First World War Letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber, 1917-18, to be published by The History Press on July 7th 2016.
© Author & Centenary News
Images courtesy of US National World War I Museum & Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri