- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

The poppies of Flanders Fields have found a new home.

The National World War I Museum opens today in Kansas City, Mo., under the Liberty Memorial, the country’s largest memorial to World War I.

The museum’s architect, Ralph Appelbaum, who also designed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, said the opening concludes an 11-year process involving renovating the 80-year-old Liberty Memorial and designing and building the 30,000-square-foot museum.

The museum about the 1914 to 1918 war, which involved 36 countries and 65 million troops, broke ground in 2000.

“The goal was really to share the stories of men and women who entered this most extraordinary of wars, a war that really brought America to the world stage,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “People forgot the poppies. They’ve forgotten that it was the war that really began the American century.”

Mr. Appelbaum’s design reminds people of the poppies the minute they enter the museum. Visitors will cross a glass-floored bridge over 9,000 silk poppies, each representing 1,000 of the 9 million troops worldwide who lost their lives during World War I.

Soldiers often commented on the poppies of Belgium and France, memorialized in the May 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian army doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae, when they wrote home, Museum Director Eli Paul said.

“After the armies left, the poppies would return,” Mr. Paul said.

The museum covers the entire history of World War I, not just the period of U.S. involvement beginning in April 1917. Exhibits include a 90-foot-long trench showing life on the Western front, over 49,000 World War I-related objects and a theater containing a 100-foot-by-25-foot screen above a life-size diorama of soldiers in no man’s land.

“What we did was integrate those artifacts into a set of interactive and experiential environments that really bring them alive,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “What it really brings alive are the voices, thoughts and ideas of everyday soldiers and citizens who lived through the event. And so you end up in a certain way hearing voices from the past that resonate so much with the voices that we hear today. …

“It’s actually a museum devoted to trying to understand what peace means.”

Mr. Paul joined Mr. Appelbaum in drawing parallels between World War I and current world problems.

“The central questions that they dealt with both during the war and shortly thereafter we’re still dealing with today,” Mr. Paul said. “Should we be helping build democracies?”

The last phase of the museum construction, which included a 20,000-square-foot research and archives center, cost $26.5 million. Citizens of Kansas City voted to approve a bond issue that contributed $20 million of the funding. Private donations and $800,000 in federal money made up the difference, Mr. Paul said.

He said the residents of Kansas City had also raised over $2 million in two weeks — the equivalent of $40 million today — to build the 217-foot Liberty Memorial Tower and two exhibit halls, which were completed in 1926. The 108th Congress designated the Liberty Memorial as the National World War I Museum in 2004.

“This is a museum that would be quite appropriate on the Mall in Washington, D.C., but it’s here in Kansas City because we beat you to the punch,” he said. “At this point, we’re basically presenting, in many respects, a gift to the nation.”

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