ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
World War I was a cataclysm that destroyed the Old World Order, killed at least nine million combatants and vaulted the United States into world prominence. But the conflict, with its trench warfare and horrific new weapons, has been largely overshadowed by World War II. Now the hard lessons of the Great War are on display at the World War I National Museum in Kansas City, which opened this weekend.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.
FRANK MORRIS: The Liberty Memorial is an 80-year-old monolith towering 250 feet above a hilltop in Kansas City. It's the nation's biggest monument to the people who fought in the war to end all wars, and it's attracted the nation's largest collection of the war's artifacts. The city recently restored the memorial and put a museum here too.
(Soundbite of "Star Spangled Banner" on trumpet)
MORRIS: Yesterday, an old Navy biplane dropped rose petals on a crowd gathered in the snow to commemorate the opening of the National World War I Museum. Just inside the museum, visitors leave the hard black stone and step out on a high glass bridge, straddling a field of 9,000 artificial poppy blooms, each one of them representing a thousand combatants killed in World War I.
(Soundbite of museum)
MORRIS: Linda Kane(ph) and Cindy Yun(ph) are among thousands of visitors streaming across.
Ms. LINDA KANE (Museum Visitor): It's really kind of otherworldly, actually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KANE: It's a little unsettling.
Ms. CINDY YUN (Visitor): Yeah. Yeah.
Ms. KANE: Yeah, it makes me a little nervous, but it's beautiful. It's really beautiful.
Ms. YUN: Oh, look at that. Look at that. Where'd they get that? Where'd they get it all?
MORRIS: Displayed just inside are ornate swords and lavish Napoleonic uniforms, in which some forces gallantly rode off to fight what they believed would be a quick and exhilarating war. Then the museum graphically illustrates what happened when 19th century delusions and military tactics collided with machine guns, high-powered artillery and poison gas.
(Soundbite of video)
NARRATOR: The trench war on the Western Front begins.
(Soundbite of explosions)
MORRIS: In a cavernous three-story room, visitors look down on a tableau of slump-shouldered British troops slogging past wreckage through a pulverized, muddy no man's land. The miserable scene is lit by simulated shell bursts and archival footage flashing on a hundred-foot screen of draped fabric.
Visitors walk past big guns, over ruined weapons, gas masks and beat up helmets. They can poke their heads into simulated trenches, complete with realistic looking mud and an almost palpable sense of misery.
(Soundbite of video)
NARRATOR: The trenches (unintelligible) the air was un-breathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us, the lights flashing as with their blood.
Sergeant SHAMIKA FIKES(ph) (Army National Guard): It'll probably give the best experience that you can get without actually having been in the war.
MORRIS: Army National Guard Sergeant Shamika Fikes strolls through the museum in combat fatigues. She's only a month back from fighting in Iraq.
Sgt. FIKES: You'll never know what it's like to be a soldier overseas, fighting in any war, unless you've actually been there.
MORRIS: Oversized photographs of faces flash everywhere in the museum. Sitting in front of a 1920s portrait of Adolph Hitler, with a quote promising vengeance for Germany's World War I losses, museum designer Ralph Applebaum says he wants to make people think about themselves.
Mr. RALPH APPLEBAUM (Designer, World War I Museum): Events like this are not about them, about the victim or the perpetrator. But in fact it's about us, the bystander, the one who follows the news, the one who reads the stories. And what it really puts into question is what do we do when we know this is happening?
MORRIS: Near the exit of the museum, David Koontz(ph) stands wavering slightly, visibly moved by the experience.
Mr. DAVID KOONTZ (Visitor): Man has to change. He can't keep producing armaments and maintaining vast armies on the world, on the face of this earth forever. There has to be - I don't know what the solution is.
MORRIS: Organizers say that if the new National World War I Museum works as designed, it'll encourage people to think hard about the fragility of peace and the price of war.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
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