National WW I Museum: Signs That Narrate Its Remembrance
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National WW I Museum: Signs That Narrate Its Remembrance

The National World War I Museum was created as a monument to both honor the history of that war and also as a monument to the Americans and Europeans who fought and died in WW I.

By Louis M. Brill

World War I is a significant moment in modern world history whose activities still affect the world's political scene 90 years later

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  • In acknowledging the importance of this event, the National WW I Museum was created as a monument to both honor the history of that war and also as a monument to the Americans and Europeans who fought and died in WW I.

    The National WW I Museum (Kansas City, MO) in documenting the war has one of the largest collections of WW I artifacts from military uniforms to actual tanks and bi-planes that fought the battles of that war. The museum as described by senior curator Doran Cart noted, "is a global history museum dedicated to WW I and whose story is told by the people who took part in that war and lived to tell about it." To date the National WW I Museum averages about 175,000 annual visitors. "Visitors to the museum come to experience history," said Cart, "and make connections to our narrative with its interpretive signage and artifacts to WW I's past and what happened during that time."

    The museum whose origins go back to 1919 began as the Liberty Memorial Tower monument. In the mid-1990s, the memorial site was expanded into an 80,000 square-foot facility established as the National WW I Museum. Within the new museum facility were a series of exhibit halls with both permanent and rotating exhibits, an introductory film presentation at its Horizon Theater and several life-size diorama reconstructions, one of a partial bombed out battlefield, and in another exhibit, a series of life-size trenches that offers ground-level views into six different trench scenes with actual objects in place.


    Infographics comprehension is all self-selective; read the headlines, read the text, look at the pictures and take in as much of the material as you want.
    photo credit: National WW I Museum

    The planning and exhibition design for this modern museum was by Ralph Appelbaum and Associates (NY, NY) who also designed much of the interpretative signage throughout the exhibit areas with clear summaries of who did what to whom and what was the outcome of those actions. In many cases the interpretative signage not only represented the museum's memorabilia and artifact collection, but in some instances were actual exhibits themselves in portraying the history of the moment.


    Infographic Expositions
    One telling sign format that dominated many exhibit areas was the use of large scale infographics which include any combination of text, graphics, photographs, charts, and if possible statistics, all used in a broad stroke of summarizing some WW I historic or cultural moment. All told there were sixteen infographics installed throughout the various exhibit halls within the National WW I Museum. The panels were developed in a collaboration between the Museum and Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the final look and feel of each infographic panel.

    Although each infographic was uniquely themed, they all had a consistent look from gallery to gallery to give viewers an ease of readability as they reviewed each exhibit gallery. "Each infographic was composed through a template that included a main headline, a large scale main image, a primary text field space and a graphic summary of the panel's theme," stated Appelbaum project leader Josh Dudley.

    As for the infographic design style, it was intentionally designed to be reminiscent of early 20th century avant-garde typographic experiments. This included attention to the details of typeface, color and graphic design of that era. All of that information floated in the neutral space on the panel, giving each panel its own presence and its theme, a representation of that unique moment of the war's history.

    The Interactive Tables allow visitors to learn about WW I by connecting with 3-D reconstructions of military vehicles used by the combatant armies; watch archival video footage and browse photographic collections.
    photo credit: National WW I Museum

    The infographics played a significant part in the museum's narrative, not only because of the 16 panels throughout the museum, but also because of their ability to take a vast amount of historical information and compress it into a series of salient points on a single wall panel that could be quickly read and understood. Another important aspect of the infographics pointed out by Cart was because of its visual simplicity it could simultaneously serve an audience range from 6 - 90 years of age.

    Because of the way infographics work, the panel's information was all self-selective, read the headlines, read the text, look at the pictures and take in as much of the material as you want. Thus museum guests could study each infographic panel and gain enough comprehensive information to understand the theme of that exhibit area. Likewise for foreign guests who may not read English very well, it was a case of a picture (and graphic) being worth a thousand words.

    Although the WW I museum does have its digital signage, and interactive tables, the most popular part of the museum is its artifacts collection of WW I memorabilia. When people come to visit, they want to see real things that were a part of WW I's history.
    photo credit: National WW I Museum

    The Chronology Wall
    Another major signage component of the Museum was its Chronology of the War wall which told of the war's origins and presented a month by month overview of the political intrigues, the skirmishes and battles as they occurred for the seven years WW I military action that encapsulated that era.

    The Chronology Wall was composed of sixty unique sign panels that became part of a hallway, and a 'walk through history.' The Chronology Wall, also designed by Ralph Appelbaum and Associates and described by Dudley, was a presentation that blurred the line between signage and exhibitory. Similar to the infographics format, the Chronology Wall panels were a reoccurring design format used to give the overall Chronology Wall a uniform look as museum guests viewed it in passing. The wall was divided in five 12-month segments, with each December panel followed by an introduction to the succeeding year's continuing activities.

    Clarke Systems- Slatz Capture was designed to meet the challenge of change.

    The Chronology of the War wall told of the war's origins and presented a month by month overview of the political intrigues, the skirmishes and battles for all the years that WW I military actions encapsulated that era.
    photo credit: National WW I Museum

    "Each Chronology panel began at the top with a call out stating the month, and directly below that, a picture with a caption. Below that was a listing of all the relevant activities of that month, either a lead up to the War or once started, the battles and skirmishes that unfolded during that month. Each panel also included a quote (red text) from a soldier with their observations of life on the front lines. At the bottom of the panel was a glass walled cabinet with varying small military artifact (hand grenade, helmet, military documents) summarizing the war experience in a tangible way. Cart noted, "as visitors passed by the Chronology Wall, many of them were caught up in its month-to-month narrative, slowly reading each panel and making their way through the years of summarized activities from 1914 - to 1919.

    photo credit: National WW I Museum

    Electronic Memories Via Digital Signage
    As much as print signage played an important in the telling of the WW I history, the Museum also had an equal investment in interactive digital signage that the museum guest accessed by keyboard, mouse or infrared pen. One example was The Portrait Wall, which was a series of electronic kiosks which provided an interactive browsing capability to look at pictures of the Americans who fought in that war, and learn first hand about their involvement.

    Each digital kiosk presented over 500 images of people involved in WWI from around the world. Placing the cursor on each photograph identified that person's war experience including what role they played in the war, what rank they had (if in the military), what unit they were in and where and when they died.

    Interactive Tables
    In an effort to physically immerse guests in the intrigues leading up to the war, and the actions and battles of the war, the museum had developed and installed an Interactive Table, known as 'issues tables' that allow up to 24 students at a time to participate in historical scenarios based on the events leading up to and surrounding the war. In the general use mode, the Interactive Tables present a number of actions that visitors can take from making their own digital war posters to operating a signal flag.

    The Interactive tables were essentially a horizontal display surface 4-feet wide by 26-feet long, and were wide enough that each side represented a different segment of the war. The east side of the Interactive Table dealt with the lead up to the war from 1914 - 1917. The west side of the Table dealt with the remaining time period from 1917 - 1919.

    The tables were conceived by Ralph Appelbaum & Associates and designed and created by 2nd Story of Portland, Oregon. The Table's various content layers were controlled by an infrared light pen that museum guests point and click with at the table to activate various story elements to appear and present themselves. The Interactive Tables worked within two modes:

    :

    General Public
    In the standard mode visitors can learn about military technologies through 3-D reconstructions from how an armored tank operates; compare the arsenals, artillery, and airplanes used by the combatant armies; watch archival video footage and browse photographic collections.

    School Group Mode
    This format is a group oriented mode that presents a team-based interactive experience, where up to 24 students are divided into six pairings of the major war contestants, with allied countries positioned against central powers countries. Here student committees communicate with each other via "telegrams" sent through the table to the team opposite them. Taking historical moments of the war, student teams set up negotiations and are able to experience the unique challenges of collaborating to form an allied military force. On the other side of the coin, students are also able to set up negotiating teams to discuss and communicate with each other how to bring the war to an end. Punctuating each challenge is a table-wide video presentation that summarizes the state of war from an international perspective.

    WW I Battlescape Map Displays
    Another digital screen format was the Battle Map displays allowing museum visitors to select specific battles plotted on a map of where battle took place. An animated timeline allows museum visitors to see from start to finish the ebb and flow of how the battles played out as battle lines shifted and territory was gained and lost. Accompanying the battle actions is a narration of the course of the events.

    Battle Map displays allow museum visitors to select specific battles plotted on a timeline to see from start to finish how the battles played out as battle lines shifted and territory was gained and lost. Accompanying the battle actions is a narration of the course of the events.
    photo credit: National WW I Museum

    "Although the National WWI Museum does have its digital signage, with its kiosks and interactive tables," said Cart, "the most popular part of the museum is our artifacts collection of WWI materials from historic posters of the era to weapons, vehicles and other related military hardware. When people come to visit, they want to see real things that were a part of history, like our cannon collection, our life-size diorama and the replicated planes and tank that were used to fight the war. The museum also shows in great detail the civilian sides of the conflict."

    The Portrait Wall was an electronic kiosk which presented the names of all the Kansas citizens that died in WW I. Placing the cursor on each name also identified what role they played in the war, what rank they had (if in the military), what unit they were in and where and when they died.
    photo credit: National WW I Museum

    The National WW I Museum has become a destination and a memorial to the opening gambit of international conflicts of the 20th century. In remembering and explaining WW I for both those who lived through it and to new generations just learning abut it, the connection between what happened and explaining those happenings are all told through its interpretive signage and exhibit labels. From printed posters to digital displays, it all tells the story of WW I, honoring the civilians and soldiers who fought and died in that war. From the signage, there is remembrance and learning, and maybe, one day peace.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. (415) 664-0694 or louismbrill@gmail.com

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