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.”
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."