Packaging KC History
© Jack Cashill
Courtesy of ingramsonline.com
Last month, a classy new National World War I Museum debuted at Liberty Memorial. All boosterism aside, the museum should have sealed Kansas City’s status as America’s most significant historical center west of Washington.
So you’d think.
In reality, however, we have yet to persuade our own residents of the region’s significance, let alone the rest of the world. There are at least three major reasons why, all of them fixable.
Speak to a group of students today, and you’ll come away thinking that some sort of cross-genetic computer virus wormed its way through their synapses and wiped out their memory banks. They are as devoid of historical data as a school of guppies.
In a recent survey 2/3 of high school students failed to identify the half-century in which the Civil War was fought—yes, the American Civil War. A good chunk doesn’t know that there was a Civil War. For these kids, Truman is a high school, Pony Express is a beer, and the Santa Fe Trail goes to Olathe.
Given the emptiness of their little heads, a trip to Liberty Memorial is pure sensory overload for these kids, mind-boggling immersion in a world most of them never knew existed. Serbia? Montenegro? Hell, half of them couldn’t pinpoint Europe on a map. If the entire exhibit were presented in Chinese, it would be only slightly less comprehensible.
The World War I Museum deserves a teeny wrist slap as well. Despite the high quality of presentation, the museum gives the visitor, especially the young visitor, little emotional meat to hang on to.
In this, the museum is hardly unique. One hears the words honor, courage, loyalty, fortitude, and patriotism no more often at the WW I Museum than he would on a CNN war report or in a UMKC history class.
As they themselves acknowledge, the creators of the WW I Museum did not set out to inspire anyone about anything but rather “to foster timely discussions of ethics, values, decision making and conflict resolution.”
The folks who sponsored the original Liberty Memorial built something grander, something nobler: “a living expression for all time of the gratitude of a grateful people to those who offered and who gave their lives in defense of liberty and our country.” If they had had asked for donations to foster discussion about conflict resolution, the Memorial would be no taller than a drinking fountain.
The current WW I museum people struggle with what the elder Bush called the “vision thing.” To their credit, they avoid the obtuse anti-Americanism and much of the political correctness that has so tortured presentations even in places like the Smithsonian. But without a vision, you don’t get a second term or, in this case, a repeat visit.
The WW I people would do well to visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum about two miles north. Star readers named the Arabia the area’s best historical attraction for one good reason: the proprietors see the virtue in the American experience and share it. They tell such an inspiring and compelling human story that people want to return and do.
In humanizing the World War I story, the WW I designers could also address the third nagging deficit in our historical packaging, namely the lack of connectivity among all area historical attractions.
To our great good fortune, arguably the three most famous American veterans of World War I hail from the greater Kansas City area. Captain Harry S. Truman and the fellow Missourians in his artillery regiment saw action in some of the most critical campaigns of the war including the Vosges, Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. The museum needs to tell us who these guys were, what they looked like, why they joined, what their sweethearts thought, and what they accomplished.
On another level, the Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, also hails from Missouri. The visitor to the World War I Museum can be forgiven for not knowing that the state operates a boyhood home historic site for Pershing in Laclede, just 90 minutes or so up I-35.
That same visitor could leave the museum without even knowing about the Truman sites in Independence or the equally impressive Eisenhower sites in Abilene, two-plus hours due west. Although he never left the states during WW I, Ike was the number three guy in the new tank corps. If my memory serves me, he made something of a mark in WW II (1900-1950, kids, if the question ever comes up).
In military history alone, the KC area has a more comprehensive claim to fame than any area in America, Virginia included. Fort Leavenworth, less than an hour up river, is the oldest continuously active Army post west of the Mississippi River and likely the most attractive. It houses, among other public venues, the first rate Frontier Army Museum and the heroic Buffalo Soldier Monument.
No region in America experienced the Civil War as long or as intensely as this one (kids, 1850-1900). Although the area has done a lame job in pulling it all together—due in part to the emotional rift the Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers left behind—the history itself is powerful enough to compensate. The Kansas Museum of History in Topeka makes an effort, and the John Brown Historic Site in Osawatomie has the virtue of simplicity. For those who can see the honor in the post-war insurgency, the Jesse James Farm & Museum in Kearney and the Jesse James Home Museum in St. Joseph recommend themselves.
Beyond the military, the other comprehensive area contribution to American history is in transportation. For starters, the area offers the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, the underappre-ciated Airline History Museum at the Downtown Airport, Union Station with its humble train museum, and the superb Arabia Steamboat Museum.
At the very least, those charged with marketing the area should see to it that each of the attractions cited has an interactive kiosk—or at least a brochure rack—that points visitors to all the other historical attractions. This is no big deal. It would help too if relevant museums swapped the occasional exhibit. Once the kinks are straightened out and the links made, the sales folks should take the whole Kansas City historical enchilada to market.
As a second step, curators should take a fresh look at their respective historic exhibits and gauge the respect they show to the brave souls who made that history. Visitors go to historical museums not so much to be educated as to be inspired.
As a third step, parents should absolutely demand that their students learn their history, even if they have to teach it themselves. “No son, Jackson County was not named after LaToya! It was named after Michael.”
OK, maybe the grandparents should do the teaching. They still had to learn that stuff back then.
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