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I love a good museum. Public history and historical memory are avenues of historical research that I enjoy exploring. Doing research in the archives is great, but visiting a museum with other people is a way of doing history that is more interactive and communal.

While in Kansas City, I spent some time exploring the WWI museum. This museum began just two weeks after the WWI armistice, as Kansas City residents gathered to discuss building a monument to honor those who served. The Liberty Memorial Association quickly raised the astonishing amount of 2,500,000.00 and by November of 1921, Allied military leaders gathered in Kansas City to dedicate the site. The completed Liberty Memorial opened on November 11, 1926.

The modern day museum and the Liberty Memorial is impressive in many respects. I particularly appreciated the timeline of key events as well as the integration of primary documents and first-hand accounts alongside the larger authoritative narrative. I also enjoyed the sound booths with recordings of various people, famous in popular culture, politics, and the military responding to WWI. A good historian loves multiple accounts and multiple sources so my spidey history senses were firing. The museum showed replicas of the trenches and provided narrative accounts of soldiers to get visitors to imagine life in the trenches, if possible, without any danger of trenchfoot.

But my favorite part of the museum was examining the posters. I love a good poster as a visual form of propaganda, encouragement, shame, patriotism, citizenship, community, and everything in between. In an era without television or the internet, posters were the most visually significant ways to connect with regular people on a daily basis. Posters were inexpensive to produce and were made to be viewed by everyone while going to the grocery store, the post office, riding transportation or just walking through a town or city. Some of the posters are made by famous artists and visually stunning. Others have snappy rhymes or clever comments. But how effective were the posters in actually changing, encouraging, or framing the ways that regular Americans thought about the war? That is a question particularly difficult to quantify. I have yet to find a person from the past that wrote down their reactions to posters, though I am sure people did react and respond to the posters.  Especially this one for the Navy.

Why did anyone save posters from WWI? After the war ended, I suspect most Americans were happy to tear them down and focus on something else. And yet, the methods, messages, and images of these posters are a helpful way to understand a part of what it may have been like to be an American during WWI.

As I reflect on Memorial Day, I wonder what historians in the future will make of Americans in our era. Our views of WWI have shifted significantly because of what happened after WWI. The fact that it was called The Great War and now we call it WWI because of WWII is one of the clearest indications of the constant revising of history based on where we stand in the present. What do we choose to focus on and why? What do we preserve and what narratives do we discard and keep?

As we honor those who have served our country in the past and present, how do we choose to remember them? What parts do we honor and what parts do we ignore?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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