World War I museum to gain new exhibit space, part of $6.4 million upgrade

A rendering of the entrance to the planned new gallery space at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.
A rendering of the entrance to the planned new gallery space at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

It takes some imagination to picture the new exhibit gallery planned for the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

The space currently doesn’t even have a floor.

But it was left empty for future use when the Liberty Memorial was restored in 2002 and the new museum opened in 2006. By 2018 it will house the first of what is planned to be a series of traveling exhibits about the war on loan from governments and museums around the world.

Creation of the Wylie Gallery, named for the Jack F. and Glenna Y. Wylie Charitable Foundation, is part of a $6.4 million package of improvements both in the underground space and above on the memorial grounds.

Work will begin early next year on the new 3,500 square feet of gallery space at the eastern end of the semicircular hallway that embraces the main museum.

Matthew Naylor, president and chief executive officer of the museum, pointed into the void on a recent afternoon.

“There’s going to be a floor and there’s going to be a roof,” Naylor said. “It will be a building within a building. Because this is an old structure, we tend to have, on occasion, some water issues.”

The climate-controlled space will be a dry and secure place to display artifacts from the Great War from places such as the Imperial War Museums in Great Britain.

The point is “honoring and remembering those who served and learning about World War I and its enduring impact,” Naylor said.

Finishing the cavernous space has long been an ambition of leaders of the museum, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in November. Making it happen was part of a “Call to Duty” capital campaign that coincided with the centennial of the beginning of World War I. To date the campaign has raised about $15 million in private funds, encouraged by $1.8 million in Missouri state tax credits.

Much of the money will go to enhancing the museum’s educational and other programming and to a maintenance endowment.

A good chunk of the money will go into various improvements on the grounds and exterior of the memorial. Lights on top of Exhibit Hall and Memory Hall that bathe the 217-foot tower are failing and need to be replaced. The new ones with be more efficient LEDs. They will be of the same neutral hue, only brighter.

“We’ve made the decision we won’t change the color for any events or citywide celebrations,” Naylor said. “It’s appropriate that Union Station, the Marriott and other iconic buildings be colored for those events. But our central purpose is as a place of memory. And we are concerned that doing so might trivialize the memory of those who served and continue to serve.”

Replacement limestone slabs from the same quarry in Indiana that produced the stone for the original monument will be installed above the museum’s bronze doors. They will be carved with the full name of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

The entryway to the museum, considered too dark at night, will be newly illuminated by floodlights when people are arriving for or departing evening events. The lights will be turned off at other times so as not to distract from the lighting effect on the tower.

A concrete pad on the north end of the southeast lawn will make it easier to bring in higher-quality portable toilets for events. Other practical improvements will include industrial electrical sockets on the memorial deck and along the driveway leading to it.

Memorial officials have noted a significant uptick in pedestrians approaching the museum from the north and using the north lawn, attributed in part to the streetcar that stops at Union Station. Several benches will be added to the walkways in the north lawn.

Back inside, the sound system and projector in the Nichols Auditorium have already been upgraded, and stage lighting improvements are planned.

One thing sure to be noticed by museum visitors will be a reworking of the artificial poppy field beneath the glass bridge leading to the exhibits. It has accumulated a lot of dust in 10 years.

“We’re going to have the production company who made that come and clean it and replace the poppies,” Naylor said. “They currently are an orangey color and they’re going to be replaced with a red poppy. It will be much more dramatic than you see now. We just want to return it to its glory. It is such an important architectural feature of the museum.”

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

Major donors

Construction projects were enabled by these major donors, which gave $250,000 or more:

▪ Hall Family Foundation

▪ Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation

▪ Jack F. and Glenna Y. Wylie Charitable Foundation

▪ The Sunderland Foundation

▪ The DeBruce Foundation

▪ Miller Nichols Charitable Foundation

▪ The Sosland Foundation