July 05, 2019

Museum Review - World War I Museum

For Memorial Day Weekend, Lord Nelson and I went to Kansas City, and while we were there, we visited the National WWI Museum, which is in Missouri for some reason. As you probably would expect, this wasn’t the best time to visit, because the crowds were much larger than the museum could gracefully handle.

Me with the dedication, including an admiral I'm not particularly fond of1
Type: National WWI Museum and Memorial
Location: Kansas City, Missouri2
Rating: 3.5/5, a very pretty museum, but put together sloppily and with a bias against seapower
Price: $18 for regular adults


Overall, I was disappointed in the museum. It wasn’t that it was an awful museum. On the surface, they did a great job. The displays looked cool, everything was well-presented, and there were some neat interactive exhibits. But it seemed like every time they were presented with a choice between the easy route of going more in-depth on the pop-culture understanding of the war or actually challenging that narrative, they took the easy route. Lots of cases of uniforms, weapons, and other personal kit, which are easy to source and easy to explain. But something complicated and difficult, like the importance of sea power in the war? Shoved off to a tiny section. Very little coverage of Jutland. Nothing on the blockade, or the Turnip Winter that did so much to bring Germany to its knees. The USN got half a display case, with a single uniform and a pistol, and a brief mention of the presence of the Sixth Battle Squadron with the Grand Fleet. Not even a photograph. And one of the signs, examined in detail, had serious factual errors.

The interior of the museum

It’s sad, because this was clearly not a museum on a tight budget. I’ve seen better-produced museums, but not very many of them. The theater they used for the film about the US entry into the war was particularly gorgeous, and the films themselves were good. And the book selection in the gift shop was great. The naval section had a lot of books that I already owned, and several that I now want to. So whoever did that knows their stuff. But the whole thing looks like it was optimized for some combination of donors and moms, neither of whom knows much about the war. They do know that they want visually-striking displays with lots of cool and understandable artifacts. It’s like a Hollywood blockbuster. The movie itself looks good, the acting is decent, but they seem to have decided to save money on the writing for some reason. This may not matter to the majority of the audience, but to those whose discriminating tastes have brought them to Naval Gazing, it’s likely to disappoint.

The sum total of the exhibit devoted to the USN

The display case about American women's organizations (Nurse Corps and so on) during the war.

This is the point where I’m going to rant even more about the lack of naval stuff. It was shamefully lacking. There was one big wall section about naval warfare, and a grand total of three major artifacts. A torpedo, a mine, and a 4.7” gun. The gun itself had an interesting history, having been captured by the Germans from the British and mounted on one of their raiders, which then ended up interned in the US. After the US entered the war, the raider was used as a troop transport, so it served in three different navies. The signage on both the mine and the torpedo is wrong. The torpedo is identified as a Mk I Whitehead, which it most definitely isn't. The shape is wrong, and the performance specifications given roughly match the WWI-era Bliss-Levitt Mk 8 and not any USN Whitehead. The mine was labeled as a Mk 4, which is plausible and makes it very rare, but the signage identifies it as an antenna mine. The Mk 4 was not an antenna mine like the Mk 6 used in the North Sea Barrage, but an inertial contact mine cancelled after a very short time in production. Also, the firing mechanism is missing. It's hard to see how a competent historian making a good-faith effort could make these mistakes in the signage. Nor did the signage do a good job of tying either the artifacts or the naval war into the broader narrative of the conflict. And they spent more display space on the pursuit of Graf Spee’s squadron than Jutland, with no other surface naval actions mentioned at all. They also had a special 1919 exhibit, which didn’t mention the scuttling of the fleet at Scapa at all.

Me with the Mk 4 mine

Another thing that was sorely lacking was cool artifacts. One of the things that separates a great museum from a good one for me is the presence of unique items that you’re not going to find anywhere else. Stuff like the Barb’s battle flag at Groton or the Mk 23 at the Atomic Museum. But there was nothing like that here, which is rather astonishing for a museum of this size. They claim to have a collection of 330,000 artifacts, but I got the impression this was because they’d bought up several batches of WWI-surplus rifles, and are counting each of them separately.

The beautiful exterior of the museum. There is an elevator to the top, but we skipped it on account of the crowds.

A couple of counterpoints to the above. First, it’s not a bad museum. It is well-produced, and if you’re not that familiar with WWI, it’s probably pretty informative so long as you're not seeking an understanding of the naval aspects of the war. Second, we were there on one of the busiest days of the year, and that kept us from spending as much time as we’d have liked on some of the exhibits. Third, the building itself, which was created as the national WWI memorial back in the 20s, is very pretty.3 The America of that age knew how to commemorate things with style, a skill we seem to have mostly lost. Fourth, there was a research level that we skipped because we were in a hurry to get home, but that I intend to visit if/when we go again.

They also had a temporary exhibit of fabric art, which Lord Nelson liked.

Overall, I’d say to go if you find yourself in Kansas City, but not to go too far out of your way for it. Or to at least set your expectations for what you’ll find, don't go on Memorial Day Weekend, and remember that some of the signs are VILE LIES put together by someone with an entirely unreasonable bias against seapower.

1 All photos from my collection.

2 Yes, most of Kansas City is in Missouri. I don't understand this either.

3 This may be part of the museum’s problem. It did seem somewhat tight on space, although this was not helped by the insistence on showing off more artillery pieces than were indoors at Fort Sill.

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