Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Looking at Liberty

I'm back in my home town of Kansas City, Missouri, for this year's mass choir call for the North American Welsh Choir. Final rehearsals for our Saturday night concert begin tomorrow morning, most choristers having arrived this afternoon. I came a little earlier, to allow me to see people and places I hadn't since I moved east four years ago.

Some of these places didn't actually exist four years ago.

One such is the new Liberty Memorial Museum. Oh, it was in the planning stages in 2003. And the fundraising stages. And the arguing stages, with those who thought it was a desecration of the 1926 design of the building to build a large-scale exhibit space under the deck of the nation's officially-designated World War I memorial. And the preconstruction stages, when it came to the rough structure and the entry doors.

But the museum was not officially opened until last December 2nd. And today was my first opportunity to see it.

Architecturally, it's impressive. You approach down a great ramped walkway past grassy terraces and an oval reflecting pool and enter through monumental bronze doors. The entry to the exhibit space is across a glass-floored bridge, one storey beneath which are 900 field poppies, suspended in a clear medium; each poppy represents 1,000 people killed in the course of the war.

The exhibits take you through the background and causes of the Great War, its mode of fighting, its armaments, equipment, and artifacts. But especially they seek to make the visitor understand what it was like for the average soldier, slogging away in the trenches for months on end, enduring the mud, disease, and vermin that were in their way worse than the firefights that punctuated the seemingly endless stalemate. This is shown especially in the trench exhibit.

I remember when the trench exhibit was proposed. There were complaints because, some said, it would glorify war. They must have been out of their minds. How can a representati0n of a dank, fetid hellhole glorify anything?

My only complaint is that the exhibit designers chose to have these tableaux viewed either through openings about a foot square or through three inch diameter holes, both punched in a wall about what? Nine to twelve inches thick? Wouldn't be a problem, if the openings were splayed on the inside. But they're angled, so you don't get a straight shot in. And often, what you can't see is exactly what you most want to make out. I found my digital camera (set to 'natural light') was an indispensible tool. That's the only way I was able to see what was really going on inside. This needs to be rethought. Not just because it doesn't communicate fully, but more because it commits the artistic crime of making the viewer step outside his experience of the work of art and say, "Why on earth did the artist do that??" And the World War I presentation at the Liberty Memorial is a work of art.
As to the artifacts, there are wonderful things, most of them donated by WWI participants or their survivors as far back as 1919. I especially liked the long German pipes with their ornamented ceramic bowls. Then there are the ominous pieces, like the torpedo you can touch, that so like the ones that sunk so many civilian vessels, including the Lusitania itself.

In many cases, seeing various objects was like greeting old friends who've come up in the world. I remembered many of them from when they were on display in the overcrowded little Museum built in the the original 1926 campaign.I don't know what's in the old Museum space now. I had a ticket to it, and also to Memorial Hall (be prepared to weep, especially as you consider the Gold Star Mothers of then and now). But the new Liberty Memorial Museum needs at least three hours to visit by itself, and I only had an hour and a half to give.

Three hours for that, another hour at least for the old Museum and Memorial Hall, half an hour at least to go up the tower, then another half hour to take in the limestone composition of the Memorial as a whole-- you could spend the best part of a day there and not exhaust what the complex has to offer.
And you come away with a salutary sense of the continuing impact of the Great War and a deep appreciation of the sacrifice of those who fought to stop old tyrannies and bring in new hope.

No, it wasn't the War to End All Wars. It was the war of its time. These battles have to be fought again and again, literally and figuratively. And it's good to count the cost-- and give the credit, for then and for now.

Anyway, I recommend that any visitor to Kansas City make time to go. It's more than worth the $8 adult admission.

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