Gordon H. “Nick Mueller, PhD, former historian and Vice Chancellor at the University of New Orleans, served as Founding President and CEO of the National WWII Museum. During a distinguished career at UNO, Mueller made his mark as a popular teacher, dean, and vice chancellor. He played a lead role in creating the Metropolitan College and in building new extension and distance learning programs, the university Conference Center, Center Austria, and the International Summer School in Innsbruck, Austria. He also founded the UNO Research and Technology Park.
But Mueller’s most daunting professional challenge arose one afternoon in 1990 over glasses of sherry in the backyard of his close friend and colleague Stephen Ambrose. A renowned military historian, Ambrose proposed that they collaborate in building a D-Day museum at UNO to preserve Ambrose’s 600-plus oral histories and create exhibits to tell the stories of the American troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. A New Orleans location for the museum was justified by a powerful wartime connection: Andrew Higgins, chief executive of Higgins Industries, built many thousands of landing craft and other boats for the Normandy assault and other Allied invasions, and was called “the man who won the war for us” by none other than Supreme Commander (and later President) Dwight Eisenhower. Since Ambrose and Mueller knew that Congress had no intention of building a museum in Washington, DC to preserve the epic story of America’s achievements in World War II, both men embraced the idea of doing so in the Crescent City.
Ambrose believed his notoriety as an historian, combined with Mueller’s administrative prowess, would make it possible to preserve the oral histories and tell the D-Day story in a modest museum on the lakefront, at a cost of roughly $4 million. Neither Ambrose nor Mueller had the faintest notion that this initial concept would one day mushroom into a mega museum on six acres in downtown New Orleans. Some 27 years after birth of the museum-building idea, The National WWII Museum is ranked by TripAdvisor users as No. 4 among American museums and No. 11 among museums worldwide.
Mueller and Ambrose began by creating a nonprofit board of local business leaders. They secured a $4 million grant from Congress and began raising other monies for a museum that soon escalated in cost to more than $15 million. The historians found the fundraising difficult and their staff support limited to a single secretary. They twice ran out of money, as Ambrose was forced to pay the lone employee himself, and within years many board members were giving up. By 1998, the museum project had managed to acquire an abandoned warehouse that once housed a brewery and limited additional state and federal funding, but little else. The project was on life support.
At that desperate moment, Ambrose joined then-UNO Chancellor Gregory O’Brien and James Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient and Chairman and CEO of the D-Day Museum Board, in persuading Mueller to become the next Chairman and CEO and commit to getting the museum open by June 6, 2000. O’Brien promised Mueller relief from his teaching duties to free up time for work on the museum. Mueller accepted the challenge with a personal commitment to raise $10 million, design the D-Day exhibits, finish the warehouse renovation, and open The National D-Day Museum on schedule. Little did Mueller know that he next 19 years of his life would be consumed by the project as he led a revitalized board through the grand opening and then guided the Museum’s transformation into an institution recognized as one of the world’s top museums.
After the Museum’s opening in 2000, motivated by national success, publicity, and Congressional urging, Mueller accepted an appointment as founding President and CEO and worked with Ambrose to begin shaping an expanded vision for the Museum to portray all aspects of the American experience in World War II. Sadly, Ambrose passed away in 2002 just as execution of the Master Plan began. But Mueller pressed forward with a new national Board of Trustees to complete the plan and secure Congressional designation in 2004 as America’s official museum for World War II, with an initial estimated construction cost of $225 million and a goal to finish by 2012.
By 2017, the capital expansion goal increased to $400 million. In the 13 years since the 2004 development drive launch, Mueller, his staff, and the Museum board had to overcome—in addition to the death of Ambrose—a devastating blow to the area economy from Hurricane Katrina and the economic recession of 2008. Supported by Trustees and other champions from around the country, Mueller and his team raised more than $300 million. In the fall of 2017 they will take part in groundbreaking events for The Higgins Hotel & Conference Center and the Hall of Democracy, with the Liberation Pavilion in final design. Together these represent the major remaining projects in the Museum’s Master Plan, and all should be complete by 2020. The campus now welcomes more than 700,000 visitors each year as it reaches over 200,000 teachers and students annually through its online education programs and national outreach.
Dr. Mueller’s new role as President and CEO Emeritus will afford him time for research and writing a history of the Museum and on other WWII topics. He continues to lead overseas WWII tours and speaks widely on the war experience, the American Spirit, and nonprofit leadership. He will also provide advice and support to the Museum’s top executives, working closely with the distinguished Presidential Counselors advisory group, and will assist learning initiatives led by the new Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.
Mueller’s exceptional contributions to the preservation and interpretation of WWII history and his special contributions to public awareness of the D-Day landings in Normandy have resulted in numerous awards, including the French government’s Legion of Honor, which in May 2016 was bestowed on him and two national figures who have assisted the Museum since its founding, Tom Hanks and Tom Brokaw. Mueller has also been elected to the board of the National History Center in Washington, DC, the public advocacy subsidiary of the American Historical Association.