Press Release

The National WWII Museum Announces Senior Leadership Succession Plan

Founding president Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller to take emeritus role, Stephen Watson appointed new president and CEO

NEW ORLEANS (May 30, 2017) – The National WWII Museum today announced that Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, will step down as president and CEO of the institution effective June 30, 2017, moving into a part-time role as president and CEO emeritus. The Museum’s national Board of Trustees has appointed Stephen Watson, longtime executive vice president and COO, as Mueller’s successor. 

Mueller, the Museum’s founding president, created the national institution alongside Stephen E. Ambrose, his longtime friend and colleague at the University of New Orleans. Work on the Museum began in 1990, based on Ambrose’s dream to tell the stories of the men and women who risked their lives during World War II. Originally envisioned as a small museum on the university’s Lakefront campus, one focusing on the Normandy D-Day invasion, The National WWII Museum has grown under Mueller’s leadership into a world-class, six-acre institution in downtown New Orleans. Fundraising and design preparations for the final major projects in a $400 million capital expansion are nearly complete. 

As Mueller completes his tenure as president and CEO, the Museum is in a phase of dynamic growth – work continues to fund and execute capital-expansion plans, with construction projects valued at $110 million either underway or expected to break ground in 2017, including a new hotel and conference center, the Bollinger Canopy of Peace and The Hall of Democracy. Concurrently, the Museum is adding new departments for media, education, research and outreach, poised to expand the institution’s reach far beyond its physical campus.

Mueller has been a driving force in expanding the institution and raising its national profile, overcoming devastation to the local tourism economy caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and by the economic recession of 2008. He led efforts to secure private and public funds and guided multiple rounds of strategic planning. Congressionally designated as America’s WWII Museum in 2004, the Museum was recently ranked in the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards as the No. 4 museum in the United States and the No. 11 museum in the world. The campus attracts nearly 700,000 visitors annually.

In its exhibits and programs, the Museum draws upon the stories of military veterans, Home Front workers and others “to reveal how the war set our nation’s moral compass – our values, our beliefs as Americans, what we learned about man’s inhumanity to man, and the price paid to preserve our freedom and democracy,” Mueller says.

“Nick has been there since day one, the essential leader,” said longtime Trustee Boysie Bollinger, who chaired the Museum’s Board from 2000 to 2004. “He had the vision and the fortitude to focus our board on the need for private capital as well as federal and state funding, while continuing to advance the mission and goals of the Museum. He steered the Board toward the vision that we ultimately gave formal approval to, ensuring the Museum would tell the full story of America’s WWII experience.” Bollinger has served with Mueller on the Board for more than two decades.

To lead the Museum into its next chapter, the Board of Trustees appointed Stephen J. Watson to the top leadership role as president and CEO. Watson has been at The National WWII Museum for 15 years, serving most recently as executive vice president and COO. He has been instrumental in the Museum’s success, with leadership responsibilities in all areas of operations, educational programs, collections, marketing and capital expansion. 

“Stephen’s deep knowledge of this institution has been enriched by years of close collaboration with Nick in shaping the vision and strategic plan for the Museum’s future,” said James Courter, the current Museum Board chairman. “Stephen was the natural choice for this role; Nick has strongly advocated for him, and he was a consensus choice of our Trustees. He is a remarkable leader who has an energetic commitment to the Museum’s mission, and he is poised to expand the institution’s reputation for excellence both nationally and internationally.” 

Through the years, Watson has steadily gained stature in the non-profit world for his innovation in expanding the Museum’s national membership, its campus resources, educational outreach and online presence. 

Watson will assume his new role as president and CEO on July 1, 2017. A main priority will be to raise the final $100 million of the Museum's $400 million capital campaign. He is supported by a national Board and an experienced staff, and will receive continuing support from Mueller, who notes, “The Museum is in wonderful hands with Stephen as president and CEO. Both the Board and I agree that with Stephen at the helm, the Museum’s brightest days are ahead.”

Mueller, a recipient of the French Legion of Honor for his contributions to awareness of WWII history and a trustee of the National History Center in Washington, DC, will continue to serve the Museum as president and CEO emeritus. He will turn his attention to research, writing and public speaking, and serve as an advisor to the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. This new public-history institute is dedicated to research that will assure the historical integrity of the Museum’s exhibits, programs and publications.

A longtime history professor and university administrator, Mueller describes his second career in developing The National WWII Museum as “a privilege and a life-changing challenge.” He recalls determined efforts in the last 17 years to build a collection of more than 9,000 personal accounts, starting with early oral histories collected by Ambrose. 

Working closely with exhibit designers, educators and other historians, Mueller has been passionate about re-inventing the museum experience for people of all ages. He and Ambrose enlisted high-profile figures such as Tom Hanks and Tom Brokaw to help champion the Museum’s agenda.

“I’ve always been driven to big adventures, big ideas, with friends to join the quest, and this challenge was the biggest ever,” Mueller notes. “World War II was not just another war; it was a defining moment in American history. It was indeed ‘the war that changed the world’ with lasting consequences for us today and for centuries to come.” 

Watson is prepared to continue the Museum’s unique story of growth and impact. “It has been an honor to have spent the past 15 years working with Nick, learning how to develop this extraordinary Museum with the individual so instrumental in the its founding and expansion,” he said. “I look forward to leading the Museum onward as we strive to complete our campus and develop new educational programs that will help establish the Museum as an international center for WWII knowledge and education – both on-site and online.”

The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world – why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today – so that future generations will know the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn. Dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum and now designated by Congress as America’s National WWII Museum, it celebrates the American Spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifices of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and served on the Home Front. For more information, call 877-813-3329 or 504-528-1944 or visit