Just Beyond the Hill: poppies and trenches

The National World War I Museum is just beyond the Hill in downtown Kansas City. It is nestled beneath the Liberty Memorial, which was erected in the 1920s by the citizens of Kansas City to honor fallen soldiers from Kansas and Missouri. The National World War I Museum was added in 2006.

The museum is a self-guided tour of events from the conception of the war in 1914 to its end in 1919. The main exhibit incorporates primary sources such as journals, postcards and clothing with simple commentary and insightful graphics.

I went on a Wednesday, mainly because tickets were only $7 compared to their normal $14, but I still can’t stop thinking about the poppies and the trenches.  The flowers are the first thing you see upon entering the museum: a field of 9,000 bright red and yellow poppies under a glass bridge.  Each one of these tiny flowers represents 1000 people. In total, they represent the 9 million human lives lost during the First World War. Then there are the trenches. The trenches are six different recreations of life in trench warfare. Each one features soldiers with a soundtrack of their letters home and enemy fire. Most require you to stick your head into a small box in order to isolate you from other noises and capture your attention. It’s uncomfortable, but effective.

I was disappointed when I discovered I couldn’t get a guided tour of a museum, as they are only offered on Saturdays at 11:00 and 1:00 and are usually reserved for school groups. Since I couldn’t make it on a Saturday, I opted for the audio guide. The guide was nice, but it did not compare to the specialized insight of a docent. The crew of older, white men in blue collared-shirts and khaki pants positioned throughout the museum was much more valuable. I found one man who explained to me the life, career and death of 10 World War I fighter pilots. Two Germans had gone on to be pilots for Hitler. Many perished in World War I or later conflicts. He also pointed out a six-inch, slim nail in the corner of a glass case. This was the most deadly weapon in the museum. Pilots would carry these nails in planes and drop them by the bucketful on enemy trenches, oftentimes piercing the top of an enemy soldier’s head and continuing into his body. Or, if he was lucky, the nail would merely pierce his foot to the bottom of the trenches. It is insights like these, that only an in-person historian can provide, which separate museums from documentaries and virtual tours.

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