War museums, memorials shine a light on the past

Drive through any city in the world and you will find war memorials dedicated to battles or individual war heroes. Many of the sculptures are made by famous artists. War and the military have been themes in art through the ages.

St. Louis and the state of Missouri are full of such museums and sights. Kansas City is home to the National World War I Memorial. A trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans will lead you to the National World War II Museum, which is the city’s No. 1 sight.

The Missouri Civil War Museum, which is located in Jefferson Barracks, is well worth a trip. The Jefferson Barracks Military Post is the oldest operational military installation west of the Mississippi.

The Washington University Libraries are now home to more than 400 recruitment posters and an array of wartime memorabilia. And of course the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park has an enormous collection of war-related works. 

Says Philip Hu of the St. Louis Art Museum, “When the topic of war and art comes up, the first thing that many people think of are arms and armor, and quite rightly so.” But Hu reminded me of the great wealth of paintings, prints, drawings, lithographs and photographs with themes of war that SLAM has to show.

Downtown St Louis boasts its new revamped Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, which features honor and sacrifice with a St. Louis focus. Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research for the Missouri Historical Society, says that the Historical Society and the city of St. Louis have come together in a great collaborative effort with U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Sundlov as the new director of Soldiers Memorial.

A two-year $30 million renovation has completely updated and upgraded Soldiers Memorial and its Court of Honor. Originally built in 1938, the Art Deco building had no air-conditioning and was not fully accessible. Now, a museum quality HVAC system, new electrical wiring, fire suppression and security systems make the building comfortable and safer for visitors. Ramps, lifts and closed captioning on video elements within the exhibit areas put the building within ADA compliance, allowing those with mobility, hearing or vision issues to enjoy the site.

 “There are many great military museums, but I don’t know if there’s a museum of this size that focuses on one city,” said Sowell.

Improvements to the Court of Honor on Chestnut Street in front of the museum include a Five Branches Fountain and a beautiful reflecting pool. The Court of Honor was created in 1948 to memorialize St. Louisans who died in WWII. Monuments honoring those who lost their lives while serving in Korea and Vietnam are included. Chestnut Street was narrowed and includes a protected bike lane. A grassy area is a meditative space and is equipped to host special programs.

“St. Louis in Service,” Soldiers Memorial’s signature exhibit, explores military history through the lens of St. Louis and those who have served from the American Revolution to today. Some of the works on exhibit are a ship’s bell from 1906 from the deck of the USS St. Louis, an Iran hostage POW bracelet from 1980, a French 11th Field Artillery uniform of Lt. Joseph Desloge (circa 1916) and the broken sword of Lt. Col. John Knapp, (ca.1860). As commander of the 1st Regiment of the Missouri Volunteer Militia during the Civil War, Knapp chose to destroy his weapon rather than surrender it during the capture of Camp Jackson by the Union Army.

Even if you don’t have personal family members remembered at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, what a beautiful museum and wonderful tribute to those who served our country. It would take many trips to soak in all the information and enjoy the videos.

Thanks to the Missouri Historical Society, the city of St. Louis and especially to the Taylor family, who have once again helped make St. Louis shine. Another special thank you to Frances Levine, president and CEO of the Missouri History Museum, for urging me to see for myself what a masterpiece the museum has become.

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at artsinterview.kdhxtra.org.