Interest in World War I spurs attendance at KC museum

PBS’ ‘Downton Abbey’ and movies like ‘War Horse’ capture public’s attention

02/18/2012 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:07 PM

World War I is trending.

Trenches displaced manicured lawns on this season of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and Martin Scorsese’s post-Great War-themed “Hugo” are among this year’s Oscar nominees. And this national interest in World War I, which raged from 1914 to 1918, may have helped boost attendance at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial.

Denise Rendina, senior vice president at the museum, said attendance spiked from 133,355 in 2010 to 141,327 in 2011. Pop culture representations probably helped.

“Having those things in our mainstream popular culture is good for the museum,” Rendina said. “It’s a buzz.”

The museum brings the public closer to the war’s soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians. Red quotes stain the walls, culled from journals, letters and spoken testimony. With the recent death of the last known British veteran, the way our culture discusses World War I has irrevocably changed.

“It shifts the burden to storytellers, to academics, to people from museums, to make sure that that story is carried on,” Rendina said.

The museum is promoting war narratives this month, with the play “Billy Bishop Goes to War,” a collaboration with the Kansas City Actors Theatre and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Theatre Department. A Canadian fighter pilot sings, dances and tells the story.

Lora Vogt, curator of education at the museum, helps visitors understand the war’s impact, using the power of storytelling.

“Downton Abbey,” about 1900s life on an English estate, “is like the gateway to the history drug,” Vogt said. “It’s your entryway into a fascinating story. Once you come to the museum, you can’t help but be swept away. It’s a magnet: When this information comes, it’s more meaningful.”

Vogt spreads humanizing stories of the war, telling visitors that the word “cooties” came from the doughboys’ life in the trenches. The body lice were so big that the soldiers could feel them crawling up the seams of their clothing. The men would flick them into a frying pan to see which one would burst first, betting on the outcome. They called those bugs “cooties,” a pest that visited both sides of the trenches.

“Bugs don’t care what side of the war you’re on,” she said.

The draw of storytelling prompted the museum to host a Kansas City preview of “War Horse,” while its 18-wheeler — a traveling exhibit with Waddell Reed — added a new panel to highlight the role of horses during the war. The museum gave a sneak peek of “Downton Abbey’s” second season on Dec. 16.

Vincent Clark, professor and chair of the Department of History at Johnson County Community College, understands the attraction to “Downton Abbey.”

“It’s grand, picturesque and remote from the ordinary lives of most Americans and English people,” Clark said. “It’s a portrayal of class relations in an aristocratic country house, which has its own charm.”

Showing the conflict from all sides, the WWI museum provides a catalyst for discussion.

“Everything in this space is based on the evidence,” Vogt said. “The conversations of interpretation are left up to the historians, to the authors and to Steven Spielberg.”

Dennis Merrill, professor of history at UMKC, said that while the public may have “World War II fatigue,” renewed interest in World War I may be spurred by contemporary international relations.

“The Iraq and Afghanistan wars sadly have not proved militarily and politically successful, thus discouraging comparisons to U.S. intervention in World War II in Europe and Asia,” Merrill said. “Their disputed origins, controversial conduct and messy conclusions hearken back to popular memories associated with World War I.”

The moral ambiguity of World War I could be another reason for the resurgence in interest.

“The irrationality of alliance systems, the jingoism associated with colonial empires and the momentum of the early 20th century arms race certainly shaped the context in which the world’s first global war erupted,” Merrill said.

Some war narratives remain largely untold, particularly concerning civil rights abuses.

“During this period the Boy Scouts went door to door looking for subversives, we renamed German foods such as hamburgers (‘Liberty patties’) and Frankfurters (‘Liberty sausages’), and people sometimes attacked German-Americans and German-American institutions,” Clark said.

The Great War’s repercussions included cultural revolutions in the U.S., from women in the workplace, to the beginnings of racial desegregation, to and alterations in immigration law. Merrill said stories of those upheavals help build our sense of national identity and give us coping mechanisms.

“The current interest in World War I in the media may reflect the way in which the ambiguities, fears and uncertainties associated with the post-9/11 world order are given voice through scenes depicting parallel anxieties associated with the Great War,” Merrill said.

Dodie Jacobi, a small business consultant in Kansas City, greeted the second season of “Downton Abbey” with enthusiasm. Similarly, she enjoyed “War Horse” as a book before she saw the film.

“As a horsewoman, I found the cavalry fascinating, and of course the relationships between Joey and his many human friends were heartwarming and plausible,” she said.

“Hugo’s” history of the film industry captivated Jacobi, particularly its insights into the contributions of pioneering filmmaker

Georges Méliès

. Although it has been a while since Jacobi last visited the museum, watching “Downton Abbey,” “War Horse” and “Hugo” has made her eager to return.

“I’m still haunted by the mock trenches at the museum and how many died in mudslides,” she said. “It’s impossible to experience all of it in one visit.”

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