Liberty Memorial conference sets sights on Great War centennial

Anniversaries can be tricky things when the original event was so bloody awful.

That is why one session at a conference this weekend at the Liberty Memorial is called “How to Commemorate a 100 Years Old Tragedy.” Certainly, no one wants to celebrate the First World War, in which an estimated 8.5 million soldiers were killed.

But the war, often called the first truly mechanized orgy of death, was too important to forget. It helped shape the 20th century, and its legacy — including national boundaries in the Middle East — remain with us.

More than 125 scholars, government officials and museum professionals from around the world are gathering here, at the home of the National World War I Museum, to discuss plans to mark the centennial of the 1914-18 war. The Europeans are well along because the centennial begins next year. The United States did not enter the war until 1917, although there were several milestones along the way to make note of.

A presidential commission to guide America’s centennial activities will be based at the Liberty Memorial. Its members have not yet been announced, but museum officials here are not waiting.

“We have grown as a museum since (opening in) 2006 and this conference is really our first effort to enter the international arena,” said Mary Cohen, chairwoman of the board of trustees of the private Liberty Memorial Association, which operates the monument and museum.

“This is a wonderful gateway to the centennial. We can become an international partner and an international resource for the history and humanity of the First World War.”

Attendees at the conference will include the consuls general of France and Germany based in Chicago. Other participants are from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada and Australia as well as universities and organizations across the United States. The lead sponsor for the conference is the Government of Flanders (Belgium) Department of Foreign Affairs — Flanders House New York.

The idea is to allow all these people to interact, share their plans and find ways to collaborate, said Denise Rendina, senior vice president of public affairs and marketing at the Liberty Memorial.

“I view this conference as the museum serving as a kitchen to bring all of these ingredients together, and you’re starting to make whatever the commemorative events will come out to be,” Rendina said.