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Boards at WWI museum

Telling important stories at the National WWI Museum and Memorial

We speak to CEO Dr Matthew Naylor about how the museum explores WWI’s enduring impact in a nuanced way

Matt Naylor WW1 Museum

Dr Matthew Naylor has been president and CEO of the internationally acclaimed National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO., since 2013. During that period, the Museum has achieved unprecedented success. It has broken records for attendance, educational/community event participants, website traffic and media impressions.

During his tenure, attendance has also risen more than 60 percent. The Museum and Memorial has been profiled by media outlets across the world, generating more than 10 billion earned media impressions.

Transferrable skills

Speaking to blooloop, Naylor said:

“It is perhaps more traditionally the case that directors of museums come through the curatorial route. That has been, perhaps, a long-established practice. Increasingly, it is becoming somewhat common that directors come through the fundraising or organizational management side.

“Perhaps I differ a little bit more, in that my background was very limited in museums. I certainly haven’t come out of the academic sector, although I have a PhD in social sciences. I had been in the humanitarian sector for many years. Then I made a decision to move to the arts and cultural sector. I believed that my skills were transferable to another sector, given that, very often, boards are looking for persons who are able to provide leadership for complex organisations.”

“I was fortunate to move to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and was there for a relatively brief period of perhaps 15 months when the search firm came to talk to me about this opportunity. They had been conducting a national search. It was evident that this was a good match, both in terms of my approach, style and academic background, and in leadership capabilities.”

Coming to the National WWI Museum and Memorial

It was, as it transpired, a very good fit. Naylor has been at the Museum since 2013. During his tenure, attendance has grown rapidly. In addition, the National WWI Museum and Memorial has gained global recognition online, featuring in countless media outlets.  

“There has been a really terrific uptick,” he concedes. “I think it’s reasonable to say that the centenary contributed to some of that. However, in the US, it’s not like in Europe or Australia or other places where WW1 is a big part of the narrative.”

National WWI Museum and Memorial

“We have sought to take advantage of there being a rising tide of interest. But we’ve also been very deliberate in providing multiple points of entry for people to think about the war.”

When he started at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, he and his team articulated their mission statement as making WWI relevant for current and future generations.

“I sat with that for quite some time, as we worked through our strategy and planning processes. We also got a lot of input from people. I was concerned that it was something of a defensive posture. So, I said ‘Let’s assume relevance, and, instead, speak about the war’s enduring impact. That released energy in the organisation, and it released a great deal of interest, or ways of engaging the public. It has been tremendously beneficial for the purpose of our work.

“It certainly is important to look at the metrics such as we’ve described, but they are measurements of impact.”

He adds:

“It has been a different trajectory for me and a really enjoyable experience.”

Leading the team

While he has, inevitably, acquired some knowledge of the history of the war, he says:

“There are some areas where it’s deeper, and others where it’s thin. I don’t hold myself out to be a technical expert in World War I history. We have experts in that area, as we have experts in other areas of the organization; in our finance team, in our events planning team; in our development team; but I have the privilege of being engaged with all of those areas.

“Part of my job is to be the chief storyteller. My role is to talk about where it is that we are heading, and how we get there, relying upon the teams to appropriately adjust. It’s as though we are sailing, needing to tack according to what the circumstances are. My responsibility is to understand all those elements, but to push the team on their competencies to have authority in those areas.”

Poppies at National WWI Museum Kansas City

Around 50% of the visitorship is under 45 years old.

“Because we also are a Memorial, we get thousands of people participating in Memorial-related activities. It’s an economically diverse group, with a diverse age spread: older people, young people, children, and middle-aged people. About 60% of our visitorship comes from outside of a three-hour drive, so people are coming here as a destination-type experience. Those demographics are important to us.”

Inside the National WWI Museum and Memorial

He describes how the collection is interpreted, and the story told:

“The Museum was founded in 1920 by the initial organization, with a mission to create the Memorial. At that point, it was a small museum that subsequently developed into a much larger museum; they began collecting in 1920. The Imperial Museum began in 1917. In 1920 our forbears chose to collect as broadly as possible.”

Dedication ceremony, 1926
Dedication ceremony, 1926

“Our focus is to tell an encyclopedic story, and for the collection to be encyclopedic. Our main galleries are interpreted in a way which, firstly, unpacks a complicated story. As I’ve mentioned, in the United States, it’s a less-known story. It covers the factors that began it and explores how it happened.”

Exploring the impact of WWI

A month-by-month chronology runs through the entire main galleries at the National WWI Museum and Memorial:

“It talks about the important events, and people’s experiences. We tell it chronologically, and then through the stories of individual persons, examining various events that occurred. Here is another way of thinking about that, which is consistent with who we are: during the commemorative period, many institutions commemorated battles, the 100th anniversary of this battle, then that battle, then that battle, and so forth. We didn’t take that approach.”

Chronology at WWI Museum and Memorial

“Our approach was to talk about the impact of the war as it related to civil rights; women’s rights and the vote; its impact on technologies, et cetera. I think that’s consistent with our main galleries.

“Our main exhibitions certainly talk about armaments, gas warfare, the impact of the expanding war, the US engagement, and we also talk about key battles. We tell that military story, but, in summary, we seek to, for it to be as inclusive as possible. It’s not a ‘rah, rah U.S.A.’-type museum. In fact, in the main galleries, the USA is not even spoken about until halfway through the galleries.”

War is not glorified

There has been a conscious decision to eschew anything that smacks of glorifying warfare. Naylor says:

“The ethos of the American culture, and I say this as an Australian who has lived in the United States for 20 years, is one of competition. It’s my team against your team. The lens through which Americans look is very much like that. We don’t do that in the galleries. It is not about which side won, but about unpacking a complicated and tragic story. Being able to seek to tell that, and then point us towards the long term, is how it’s set up.”

1926 Dedication_President Coolidge Arriving
President Coolidge arrives at the dedication ceremony in 1926

It is, he emphasises, an unresolved story.

“I like to say that we essentially do two things,” he says. “We speak of the honour of those who served, and we confess war’s horror – we want to try to balance those things out. We want to tell the history, and to talk about the extraordinary feats, in some instances, of people. But we also speak of the war’s tragedy. That, for me, is an important balance in a world where sabre-rattling is increasingly common.”

Reflecting on the past is vital

He adds:

“We are a long way away from people who are on the front line. That was not the case in WWI, and it was not the case in WWII. We are a long way now. There is a lot of loose talk about war. We want to be able to help make this as real as possible. We want to help people understand the consequence of war.”

The museum’s war poetry is one thread of this interpretation:

“We use war poetry and novels that deal with the impact of the war in a variety of ways, and also in public programming. It’s such a rich field; when you think about the enduring impact, it’s such a massive canvas.”

WWI_MemorialDay_national museum

The National WWI Museum and Memorial has a robust public programme:

“Our multinational Armistice ceremony on November the 11th 2018, which was outdoors, began with a reading of Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. This is an illustration of our desire. This is not a glorification of war; the last line – ‘…but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one’ is an extraordinary confession of tragedy.

“The philosopher George Santayana is credited with the assertion that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

“I do believe that. I think that it’s important for us to be able to reflect on what happens in history. Not because we’re able to replicate that now, but rather we’re able to learn from that.

“Arguably, we wouldn’t have had the Marshall plan if it weren’t for the failure of the Treaty of Versailles. Being able to reflect upon what worked and what didn’t work informs choices that we make moving forward.”

The purpose of the National WWI Museum and Memorial

This is why places like the WWI Museum and Memorial are so important.

He adds:

Thomas Friedman, the New York columnist and author of The World is Flat and other important books, proposed late last year that we are in a Prometheus moment.

“He suggests that in and around the time of WWI there was this great undoing. There were extraordinary energies that came together, part of which was expressed in the war as alliances shifted, as new technologies emerged, and as, philosophically, war was seen, as Thomas Mann characterised it, as a ‘glorious national cleansing’; a necessary experience.”

Places like ours present an opportunity for people to think deeply about these two moments as they seek to find some sort of mooring to their own sense of a disconcerting life in 2022

“Friedman would argue that we’re in a similar moment now. There has been a great undoing of norms, of the systems that have kept us in check and that have held the world together.

“Places like ours present an opportunity for people to think deeply about these two moments as they seek to find some sort of mooring to their own sense of a disconcerting life in 2022. There is a sense that we are becoming unmoored; that we are adrift, that it’s a reflection of Thomas Friedman’s Prometheus moment.

“There is an opportunity for us to reflect upon the experiences in and around WWI, to see how people dealt with that; how they coped; how they made meaning, and created structure, finding a ground upon which they would be able to stand.”

Asking questions

Museums, he contends, can help people with those reflections. Another example he cites is the experiments in democracy arising from WW1:

“They are quite extraordinary, and happened over an extended period of time, as empires collapsed and as previously colonised peoples fought for their independence.”

National-WWI-Museum-and-Memorial

Questions were asked about what it meant, the nature of citizenship, and self-government:

“Quite frankly, we’re having very similar discussions in the world today, as we see the rise of strongman politics, as we see the suppression of democratic values.”

Accordingly, he adds:

“There is an opportunity for museums such as ours to be able to contribute to these sorts of examinations, as people seek to find what’s important, culturally, socially, as well as for their own personal lives.”

Events at the National WWI Museum and Memorial

The National WWI Museum and Memorial held its Taps at the Tower event for a week in June, held at sunset. People were invited to come and use the grounds each evening, have a picnic, play games, and enjoy the outdoors.

“It’s only a three-minute ceremony,” Naylor says. “My objective with this is that people can bring their kids, their dogs, they can have ice cream afterwards, but that they can also talk with their kids about the values that are really important. I want it to facilitate those sorts of conversations.

“We are reminded on Remembrance Day, on Memorial Day, of those who put on uniform willing to lose their lives, and of those who did so.”

“Most significantly, we are given the opportunity to reflect upon the values for which they were willing to die. It gives us the opportunity to think about the values of democracy, liberty, and freedom. Not in the ‘rah, rah USA’ way, because these values are shared across Western democracies, and liberal democracies the world over; it’s not a uniquely American experience, despite what Americans might tell you.

“Places like this give us the opportunity to have those sorts of conversations, which can be north stars for us when we feel unmoored.”

The impact of the pandemic

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when cultural arts organisations across the world laid off or furloughed thousands of employees, Naylor received national recognition for successfully navigating the National WWI Museum and Memorial through the challenging times by reforming the organisation into new teams. This allowed for the retention of all staff, while amplifying the institution’s online educational presence and expanding its online database of searchable artefacts.

He explains:

“We saw it coming across the Pacific. The staff began to consider what they could do if we had to work from home. And that bubbled up some ideas. When the city shut everything down, we organised everybody into five cross-functional teams.”

The principle was one of not allowing a crisis to go to waste:

“How could we use this for the benefit of the organisation, on the one hand, when, on the other hand, it was potentially an existential threat? We don’t receive federal funding, so how could we ensure that we survive? That is a concern that we shared with so many, not knowing what the future was going to be.”

A unique project

About half of the team then focused on the transcription project, in line with the Big Ideas of the strategic plan.

The board of directors supported the plan not to cull staff. The home-based transcription project, which involved 6,000 pages of letters, diaries and journals being transcribed and digitised, demonstrated that refocusing the staff strengthened the institution’s work, while stopping activity would have resulted in a negative impact.

Liberty Memorial July 1944
Liberty Memorial July 1944

Naylor worked with the finance team to work out how to avoid losing staff. With the board, he came to an agreement about how much money the Museum could afford to lose.

“Financially, I questioned the finance team about whether there were restricted donor funds that we could apply during this period, to get us through. That was part of the conversation, as well.”

Coming back strong

In terms of values, he acknowledges there was a tension between the board’s commitment to staff and volunteers on the one hand, and on the other the commitment to the financial viability of the organisation:

National-WWI-Museum-and-Memorial-Fireworks

“How could we balance those two things? We had a staff meeting every week by Teams. Everybody was set up so they could work at home. Those people who would ordinarily be guest services staff did other sorts of work, such as digitisation and transcription. I am honest with my staff, and we were very fortunate. The board was supportive. We had a tolerance of how much money we were willing to lose, to stand down.”

In the event:

“We navigated that very well, and found our way through the pandemic.”

It has been an extended period:

“The second half of last summer was very strong; July was our biggest month in the history of the Museum for visitorship. This year we’ve been running in the eighties. June has been very strong, but until now visitorship has been at 85%, compared to the ‘before’ times; we’re completely back yet, but we are doing better than the sector average.”

Looking ahead at the National WWI Museum and Museum

In terms of plans for the future in the short and the longer term, he says:

“In 2017 and 18, we began to do some important work that asked the question, who are we post commemoration? It was important to me that we had a compelling vision coming out of the commemorative period. We didn’t want to rest on our laurels. That caused us to do a lot of reflection, a lot of talking with the stakeholders, and so forth. From that, we built out what we call Three Big Ideas.”

 The first big idea is to create a more immersive experience for guests, and to make the collection more accessible:

“Just last week, we began a building project where we’re creating an open storage area. We are also making some other physical changes, such as staircases. We are making significant upgrades to our main galleries, which are about 16 years old now.

Ralph Applebaum Associates, the preeminent gallery designers, are our partners. They spent a year dreaming with us about what we could do to meet these objectives of a more immersive experience for visitors, and of making the collection more accessible.”

The institution will be spending about 20 million over the next couple of years on their big idea around that.

Telling wider stories

The second big idea is to ensure that the stories of women, minorities, and indigenous people who served in the war are not lost, but are told through a dedicated collecting initiative.

“Another way to think about this is to ensure that the stories that we might think about from the margins are given priority,” Naylor says.

“For a variety of social and political reasons, the story of the war is primarily told through the lens of the big players. But, in today’s terms, about 116 countries served in the war. For a lot of political reasons, their stories are not as well-known. So, there is an opportunity for us to ensure that those stories are preserved. We have decided to prioritise those areas.

“Then, similarly, the experience of women who served in the war absolutely must be prioritised; the stories of minorities, of black soldiers in the United States, for example; of native American soldiers, Hispanic soldiers, and so forth.”

New conversations

He adds:

“We are grateful that the Lilly Endowment made a grant to endow a new curatorial position. This is helping us examine the interplay between faith and religion and WWI. For instance, how did the empire appropriate religion for their war purposes? What impact does religion have on the war?

“An example of that, in very practical terms, would be that for the British, the Indian troops, of whom there were 1.8 million, had seven religions. They had different dietary requirements, different clothing requirements, and different burials. How did we manage those and the clash of ideas that came together? “

Allied Leaders_1921 Dedication
Allied Leaders attend dedication ceremony

“There is a whole area of exploration around this notion that we would be an institution that seeks to participate in this conversation around stories from the margins.”

Online engagement at the National WWI Museum and Memorial

The third big idea, he explains:

“Is about taking the National WWI Museum and Memorial to the 4.6 billion people who have internet access.”

There has been a massive uptick for the institution in online engagement:

“It’s a huge growth area for us, as for so many. We want our online experience to be considered as important and as authentic as the in-gallery experience.”

National WWI Museum online collection

“We have just launched a new website that is a cornerstone of that project; a new collections database that is going to interface with the increasing numbers of digital materials that we have online. There is a great opportunity for us to contribute – as we already do – curriculum materials for schools, and content for people who are looking for resources, and genealogy services.”

A bright future

The National WWI Museum and Memorial has a second website, ‘How World War I Changed America’. This is very popular with schools.

“We have little five-minute videos on there that teachers use a lot,” he says. “That is our third bucket. It’s around digitising the entire collection and providing content on that.

“In summary, we have a great sense of clarity about what we need to be focusing upon. Those three ‘big ideas’ inform a whole lot of what we do. Leading towards the 100-year opening of the Memorial in 2026, we’re also fortunate that in 2023 the NFL Draft is going to take place here on our property. That is an opportunity for us to showcase the Memorial, and to speak about the service of veterans.”

In addition, Kansas City has just been named as a host city for the World Cup in 2026:

“Fan Fest will be on our property in 2026. This is another global opportunity for us to draw attention to the Memorial, on what will be the 100-year commemoration of its opening. That leads to the opportunity to talk about what it means to memorialise those who serve, the work of memory, as well as to be able to tell the WWI story.

“In terms of the capacity for us to intersect with contemporary issues, we feel very confident to be able to do that work. We see our future as being very bright.”

All images kind courtesy of the National WWI Museum and Memorial

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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