Prepare to revisit the war that reshaped the world

01/24/2014 1:41 PM

01/25/2014 5:58 PM

As general director of Great Britain’s Imperial War Museums, Diane Lees is at the helm of an international effort to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

She came to Kansas City recently to meet with and inspire officials and supporters of the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial. The local repository of history and memory is very much involved in a national effort to remember the war and its lessons. And in May it will launch a new exhibit, “The Road to War,” the first in a long series of events that will bring World War I to the forefront of our attention for the next four years.

But, why, some people might ask, should we care about such a distant eruption in the world as it once was?

As Lees tells it: “You can’t understand the world today, if you don’t understand the causes and consequences of the first world war.”

Exactly: The national boundaries of Europe and the former Soviet states. The borders, politics and civil wars of the Middle East and the former Ottoman Empire. America’s alliances and its role in the world. All of those shifting geo-political sands stemmed from the killing fields of the Great War and the international negotiations that followed.

The war’s history is being retold in countless ways for current generations. A parade of prominent books about the war already has been unleashed. (Margaret MacMillan’s “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914” is a pretty good place to start boning up.) And popular culture is doing its part with such productions as the renowned stage play (and film) “War Horse,” which will land at the Music Hall in April.

The arts will play a large role in the Imperial War Museums’ efforts — collaborations featuring opera, dance, music and visual arts will result in a whole new body of work engaging the war and its reverbarations, Lees said.

Lees, who spoke at a couple of private events at the National World War I Museum, is a dynamic presence and entertaining speaker. She became general director of the Imperial War Museum complex five years ago, just in time to join the planning for the WWI centenary and also just in time to watch government funding of her multi-site museum take a nosedive. This is an organization with 600 employees, its own fire department and air traffic controllers, and some 2.3 million visitors a year. By 2016, she said, halfway through the centenary, the government’s investment in her museums will be down some 35 percent.

Yet it holds some of England’s most popular historical tourist attractions under its umbrella — including the Churchill War Rooms and the main Imperial War Museum in London, which is undergoing an extensive renovation and preparation for a relaunch in July. With a full-blown schedule of new and innovative programming in the wings, Lees’ operations are poised to not only survive but thrive.

One of the museum’s websites ( is already stocked with more than three dozen fascinating podcasts on various aspects of the war, most of them capturing voices of those who lived through and fought in the war. Another project, launching on the web later this year, is an ambitious effort to link documents, letters and other information about as many as 8 million Britons connected to the war (


Lees was surprised by what she found at the Liberty Memorial. She’d imagined the museum here to be narrowly focused on America’s role in the war but was impressed to discover that it took a much broader view.

“The collections are absolutely incredible,” she said, “and there’s a very strong vision behind it. You don’t get that in a lot of museums.”

Her view bodes well for those of us here looking to reconnect with history.


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