I have seen a museum that would make Civil War visitors uneasy, so different is it from what we are used to and what we have been taught a museum must be.
An ethos opposed to the prevailing tourism wisdom was present in every display. It had a singleness of purpose that is hard to imagine in a public facility. It offered zero entertainment, no social history, no multipurposing, and its tone was confrontational, even slightly antagonistic toward visitors. It wrapped day-trippers in a shroud of death and dared them to compare their trivial preoccupations with what they were seeing before them.
Vacationing in Kansas City, I had put down my copy of Land of Lincoln last week to take a trip to the National World War I Museum. In that book, author Andrew Ferguson offers snapshot of the Lincoln scene, including an anecdote about how the design for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) narrowed to a Disney-steeped imagineering outfit on the one hand and the museum design firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates on the other. Applebaum was just a name to me when I put the book down. Appelbaum lost ALPLM but it did design this World War I museum during the same period. The Kansas City facility presents a vision of the seriousness of public history and in that hints of a vastly different ALPLM that might have been.
You enter this museum by passing through bronze doors under a WWI memorial - there is a masoleum effect. The first thing then facing the attendee is a field of poppies; the guides tell all, willing to hear or not, that each flower represents 100,000 military deaths. The tourists must walk over the dead to get to the exhibition. So, before being allowed into the exhibits, a memorial is viewed and meditation on death is forced upon the tourist, however young, however frivolous, however callow. A tone is set. The museum staff says, as it were, We have expectations of you.
Inside, the visitor enters a black and white world livened only occasionally by olive drab or mud brown. After a 12-minute introductory movie (in b&w), the path takes the attendee past inummerable military displays in cases. Someone is trying to kill you with this object. There are peeks into trenches (more life-sized diorama than Disney) and there is one totally immersive experience of entering a shell-hole from the bottom looking up. This is your home; you live here now.
The designers seem to have been taking the re-enactor's sense of history and fitting the visitor into that.
Moving along the floor plan, taking reasonable time to look and think there came a point with me and my party when we asked each other, where is the American element? There had been no hint of U.S. participation in the tour after an hour-and-a-half of wandering. This was because as late as it entered the war, the U.S. enters the displays - a remarkable touch.
Despite "national" in its name, the money for this museum was raised locally; although it operates under the auspices of a local parks commission, it is privately managed. It's hard to imagine any other institutional arrangement that would have allowed for this design and this presentation. The overlaying monument site was long ago erected by veterans under their own impetus to convey their message. This museum is, uncompromisingly, a continuation of their message.
My party, made up of locals, was impressed at the end of their first visit and asked my thoughts. I said, "Come here often. This cannot last."