The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art requires face masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing isn't possible, and is operating at reduced capacity due to the pandemic. Visitors are encouraged to buy tickets online in advance. Be sure to check the museum's website for updates and Florida's Department of Health for the state's latest COVID-19 guidelines before visiting. Also note current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for travelers.
As I peek inside the drab zigzagged trench, held together by sticks and topped with piles of sandbags, I'm struck by the unspeakable conditions of warfare. On the ground lie two soldiers (mannequins) mired in mud while a soundtrack overhead haunts with a cacophony of explosives and unyielding shellfire. A recreation of a trench occupied by French soldiers more than a century ago, the exhibit is just one of the many at the National World War I Museum and Memorial (NWWIMM) in Kansas City, Missouri, that bring home the gruesomeness of a war that eclipsed 40 million casualties.
They all serve the NWWIMM's weighty mission: to help visitors “remember, interpret and understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.”
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Wandering through the 50,000-square-foot museum, you'll eye one of the world's most diverse collections of World War I artifacts (more than 300,000) — so impressive that Congress has recognized the museum as the nation's official World War I museum. The memorabilia runs the gamut from colorful propaganda posters and original nurse and soldier uniforms to a battle-scarred, American-used Renault FT-17 tank and combat weaponry, including German grenades and Spanish revolvers.
Complementing the museum: The 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial Tower, an Egyptian Revival-style monument protected by two Assyrian Sphinxes ("Memory” and “Future").
Plan Your Trip
Location: 5401 Bay Shore Road
Getting there: From St. Petersburg, it's about a one-hour drive south on Interstate 275 to Sarasota. The city is about two hours southeast from Orlando. If you're starting your trip in Sarasota, you can fly into either the Sarasota-Bradenton or Tampa international airport and rent a car. (Tampa's airport is about 65 miles north of the museum via I-275/I-75, but may be more likely to have a direct flight, depending on your home city.) The museum has two free surface parking lots near the entry gates. Golf carts shuttle visitors from the lots to the entrance.
Visit: Daily (closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)
Admission: General admission — $25 ($23 for adults 65+) — gives you access to the Museum of Art, Circus Museum and Bayfront Gardens. For an additional $10, add on a tour of the Ca’ d'Zan's first floor. Just strolling the grounds and gardens, $5. On Mondays, the Bayfront Gardens and Museum of Art are free.
Best time to visit: Weekdays (except Monday) to avoid crowds
Best season to visit: December, when twinkling white holiday lights add sparkle to the Ringling's grounds and summer's heat has given way to cooler (but pleasant) temperatures
Accessibility: Lots have accessible parking. Accessible trams with ramps for wheelchairs transport the mobility challenged all around the vast property, which is crossed with sidewalks and pathways connecting all of the facilities. Wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served) for those who find the grounds too spread out for navigating solely on foot.
A patriotic group of Kansas Citians spearheaded construction of the museum and memorial two weeks after the November 1918 armistice. The group, which called itself the Liberty Memorial Association (LMA), wanted to honor World War I service members because so many soldiers had traveled through the city's Union Station, a centrally located departure point, when they deployed. In just 10 days of fundraising, the grassroots initiative raised an astounding $2.5 million from the community (a modern-day equivalent north of $40 million) to inaugurate the symbolic project. President Calvin Coolidge officially dedicated the museum upon its opening on Nov. 11, 1926.
"It [the Liberty Memorial] has not been raised to commemorate war and victory,” the 30th U.S. president said to the crowd of some 150,000 Americans on hand that day, “but rather the results of war and victory, which are embodied in peace and liberty.”
Deteriorating conditions forced the NWWIMM's closure in 1994, but it reopened on Memorial Day 2002, following a hefty restoration that included both the memorial tower and the original museum, adjacent to the memorial. A multimillion-dollar expansion of the museum, built underground under the memorial, debuted in December 2006.
A big surprise to many of the NWWIMM's half-million annual visitors: its global interpretation of “the war to end all wars,” a nod to the LMA's original intention to represent and collect artifacts from all participating nations (34 in total) on every front, be it Germany, France or Brazil. “There are no sides taken [at the museum] — no winners or losers,” says senior curator Doran Cart. “Even though it's in the United States, it's not an American museum — but an international museum about the war."
Inside the museum
The NWWIMM covers ample ground — with a sprawling main gallery and five exhibition spaces spread across three floors — so maximizing your time and making the most of your visit requires a game plan.
Start with the 12-minute introductory film in the lobby auditorium (shown every 15 minutes), which will help you better understand the power struggle and generations of chess moves that ignited this Great War. “Peace is war held in check,” the movie's narrator proclaims, underscoring Europe's mounting tension and waning aristocracy at the turn of the 20th century, eventually culminating in the straw that broke the camel's back: the 1914 assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Next, you'll want to spend most of your time in the main gallery, home to the museum's most significant artifacts, which contribute to a meticulous telling of the war's numerous twists and turns. The glass bridge that connects the lobby to this gallery hovers above a Western Front poppy field that symbolizes the millions of lives lost as a direct result of combat. The view of the 9,000 bright-red artificial flowers, each representing 1,000 combatant deaths, will tug at your heartstrings for the countless sacrifices made.
Move through the main gallery and its two sections, counterclockwise, for a chronological journey through World War I. The first section focuses on the period before the U.S. entered the conflict (1914 to spring 1917), including six life-size trench re-creations. They offer a ground-level view of the dreary underground network (enhanced by the ambient sound of gunshots) that, if laid end to end, would have stretched a staggering 35,000 miles. Dubbed “the long grave already dug” by British poet John Masefield, the tunnels were a final resting place for millions of soldiers.
You'll also see numerous war relics, including French death certificates, authentic Austrian mourning cards, Belgian bread bags soldiers used to haul their rations, and an antique brass Princess Mary Christmas gift box that held the candies, pencils and cigarettes of a British infantryman. Keepsakes like these help you imagine the young soldiers sharing a smoke and memories of their loved ones as they fought to survive far from home.
The U.S. joins the fight
Before entering the main gallery's second section, whose focus begins on April 6, 1917, the day President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, make sure you don't skip the thought-provoking 15-minute film that introduces America's entry into the conflict. Although the U.S. had vowed not to get involved in the war, it had no choice but to when news broke that Germany's foreign minister secretly offered to finance Mexico in a war against America, as the film reveals. Below the screen sits a poignant replication of “No Man's Land” — the barren wasteland of tree stumps and barbed wire between enemy forces.
Visitors can walk through the re-created environment of a French farmhouse turned howitzer-blasted shell crater and admire an original 1917 Harley Davidson, one of 20,000 motorcycles sent to support the war effort in Europe. Elsewhere in this section, lesser-known stories reveal the unheralded details of the Choctaw code talkers (who used Native American languages for military code to fool the Germans), the Black Rattlers (the celebrated 369th Infantry Regiment of African American soldiers) and the Gold Star Mothers, who took postwar pilgrimages to their sons’ and husbands’ gravesites.
Before exiting this gallery, you can design your own propaganda poster on one of the interactive counters, then email it to yourself to print at home.
In the museum's other galleries, exhibitions that rotate frequently focus on niche topics related to World War I. Through Sept. 6, “Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI,” currently the museum's special exhibition, showcases the importance of women's fashion to morale, economies and war allegiances through capes, coats, hats, shoes and vintage dresses of revered French designers. The “Votes & Voices” exhibition (no end date set) celebrates the women's suffrage movement and ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Cap your visit to the NWWIMM by ascending the Liberty Memorial Tower (when it reopens post-COVID-pandemic) for a panoramic view of the Kansas City skyline, a must-do for the able-bodied. (To reach the open-air observation deck, you first take an elevator, then must climb 45 steps.) If you can't make the climb up, the tower shines from the ground just as well.
Where to Stay
Crossroads Hotel: You're just a short stroll from the museum at this 131-room downtown property in the Crossroads Arts District. The 100-year-old brick bottling warehouse turned hotel is the former business stomping grounds of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. Venture up to its scenic rooftop for the view and a beer garden. Rooms from $189
Home2 Suites Kansas City Downtown: Book a room in this 114-suite property for a budget stay in the Crossroads district. The Kansas City Streetcar, a free downtown shuttle service, stops just across from the hotel, giving you easy access to downtown attractions, such as the restaurants and shops at River Market. It doesn't stop at the museum, which is within walking distance from the hotel. Rooms from $99
Where to Dine
Barbecue kingpins: When in K.C., do as the locals do and chow down on what many die-hard barbecue fans consider the country's best barbecue. At Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que, which tops most lists in the city — and some national ones — you can't go wrong with the pulled pork sandwich or any of the slow-cooked meats. For the best environment, head to Joe's original location in an old gas station on West 47th Avenue, about 5 miles south of the museum.
The ribs at Arthur Bryant's Barbeque on Brooklyn Avenue have attracted the chops of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama — and Harry Truman, when he was alive. It's an easy drive that's 2.5 miles northwest of the museum.