A Museum exhibition, open Oct. 28, 2022 through April 30, 2023
Aside from its world-renowned permanent collection, The National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri almost always has a couple of limited engagements going on. These exhibits not only make the museum’s frequent visitors happy, but they show off some of the facilitie’s artifacts many patrons never get to see. I have tried to attend each of these since I became a member, and have found that these alone are worth the subscription. I actually attended this back around Halloween sometime, but as with many of these History Tour articles, I am behind. Luckily, unlike a few of my previous blogs in this series, this is one that can STILL be seen if one were to want to make the trip over.
National World War I Museum; Kansas City, MO
Perhaps one of the most jarring things one sees when walking through this exhibit is the number “9 Million”. That is the estimated number of prisoners of war housed at any given time during those hellacious four years between 1914 and 1918. This number almost rivals the number of casualties from the entire war. Like many aspects of The Great War, this seems incredibly bleak, and in many ways it could be. Captured, a new exhibit, tells the story of this imprisonment during World War I, and how those fortunate enough to live to tell the tale survived with their sanity intact. POW Newspapers, art pieces, repurposed supplies, and even performative theater are some of the many ways soldiers kept sane during their incarceration, showing that there is still life if one wants to live it, and for many it was somewhat “business as usual” behind enemy lines.
That is, of course, depending on where you were locked up, as survival depended a lot on which side you were being sent. Prisoners that found themselves in the UK or France almost could assume a relatively easy time, however Germany and Austria-Hungary weren’t as easy largely due to blockades or embargoes placed on food shipments going into those countries. If those Central Powers countries were having trouble feeding their own populaces, you better believe being a foreign combatant on their soil was a grim prospect.
This is the description of the exhibit from the official website:
“Nearly 9 million.
During four brutal years of the Great War, nearly 9 million people were held as prisoners of war at some point during the conflict. From the shores of Southeast Asia and the Siberian tundra, to mere miles from the Western Front, they were imprisoned the world over – by both sides. Seldom told, their experiences are some of the most common during the Great War.
Captured delves into the stories of life behind the wire: relationships among the prisoners and between the prisoners and their captors, a complex and unique dynamic of mundane daily life and the arduous conditions of captivity. Bound together by suffering and uncertainty, many prisoners and guards were encountering people of different races, religions, languages and cultures for the first time. This exhibition explores how their relationships sustained hope – on both sides of the barbed wire – amid bleak and uncertain circumstances.”
I constantly go to stuff at this museum, so be sure to check out links below for a general overview of the main collection and any previous trips to special exhibits.
There are numerous highly-detailed books on prisoners of war during World War I, so I had a tough time finding something accessible and on the cheaper side at the museum gift shop, finally settling on a book called Allied POWs in German Hands 1914–1918 (Images of War).
“ fully-illustrated account of the dangers, the deaths, and the hardships of the thousands of Allied men who became prisoners of war during World War I.
After being forced or making the decision to surrender, the soldier, sailor, or airman was at the mercy of his captors. Here, readers will learn what it felt like to surrender, the hazards involved, and then the often-arduous journey to a prisoner camp in Germany.
Not all camps were the same; some were better than others, a situation that could easily change with the replacement of the commandant. But most were poor. Disease was rife and there was little medical care. With the arrival of parcels from home most prisoners could implement their diet, but this was not the case for Russians who received little help and relied on handouts from other prisoners. Barracks were usually cold and there were few blankets and little clothing. Men were abused, starved, denied their basic rights, sent to work in appalling conditions, and some were simply murdered. Escape was a priority for many men, but few made it home. This is the stark, unflinching true story of men who volunteered to fight for their country, only to end up in a war for survival at the mercy of the enemy.”
I figured this would be best because it kept in the spirit of the exhibit as a whole, and would reinforce some of the information within.
Compared to other exhibits, Captured is a bit more low-key, and as with one of the previous installation – Snapshots, relies a lot on photographs and artwork over material artifacts. That isn’t to say there aren’t any tangible items, as there are truly impressive bits of hand-crafted art including walnut shells that have been turned into mini-dioramas, improvised instruments, statues, uniforms, and other items. The focus of the exhibit is not really stuff like that anyway, it’s more about capturing a feeling or understanding a culture found within those prison camps. Soldiers pressed on when times got tough and tried to live their lives the best they could. Small items like a newspaper distributed through a camp, or pictures from various stage productions go to show that they could live somewhat of a normal life despite their surroundings. Captured is interesting in showing aspects of the war that many may not know about, which is always great about special exhibits at this particular museum.
If I had one issue with the exhibit, and this is likely fixed and only applied to the “members only” event I attended, it was that there were no markers to tell which way to start resulting in half of the patrons going though backwards (like myself) alongside others going the right way. I noticed pretty early on that I was looking at stuff talking about 1918 at the beginning, but had already committed to going the way I was going. It didn’t ruin anything, but it was very confusing.
Overall, this was a very interesting exhibit covering a topic that I feel many overlook. It was, by no means some sort of earth-shattering experience, but I was not expecting anything like that. This was the first time I attended a special viewing of an exhibit since I signed up for a membership, and it was great being able to see the exhibit early. Having a tiny shred of VIP treatment, no matter how small, was just enough to get me that drop of serotonin I needed that day. I hope they do more things like that in the future! Overall, any trip to this museum is great, but if you are looking for a reason to drop back by after a long wait, this is an excellent excuse.
National WWI Museum
Empires at war
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