In 1990, UNC-CH alum Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller, then a professor and administrator at the University of New Orleans, was approached by colleague Stephen Ambrose to start a modest museum to honor those who participated in D-Day. Mueller, whose graduate training in modern European history under Carl Pegg helped prepare him for the project, shared Ambrose’s enthusiasm. Neither Mueller nor Ambrose would have expected that, twenty-six years later, their idea would have grown into the National World War II Museum, one of the most popular museums in the United States.
After ten years of planning and development, the National D-Day Museum opened in 2000. A number of U.S. Congress members attended the opening. Two guests, Senators Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens, presented Mueller with an offer: if he agreed to expand the museum to encompass the entire U.S. military experience in World War II, they would find funding. Soon, Mueller and his museum received congressional appropriations to purchase three city blocks in New Orleans’ Warehouse District, and construction of additional museum buildings began.
Now, visitors can walk in the shoes of an American soldier in the European or Pacific theater of the war in the Campaigns of Courage Pavilion. They can see tanks, trucks, and airplanes in the U.S. Freedom Pavilion. Or they can visit the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion to view the original D-Day exhibit. There is an excellent article on the museum and Mueller’s role in its creation and development in the November/December 2016 Carolina Alumni Review.
Mueller’s transition from professor and administrator to National World War II Museum President and CEO was unexpected, but his career as a research historian and an educator made him well-prepared for developing a museum. “[You use] many of the same attributes that you acquire trying to research history, to write about it, to teach about it. You have to study a vast amount of resources and you have to learn how to compress the data, the history, the research that you’ve done into something that communicates a clear, compelling story,” Mueller said. “Those years of teaching and training in history were absolutely critical in helping me develop the vision for what we wanted to create, first in the National D-Day Museum, and after that.”
Now, Mueller is preparing to retire after sixteen years as President and CEO of the National World War II Museum. In the meantime, he is developing the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at the museum, which will ensure that the museum remains engaged with and responsive to cutting-edge scholarship. Simultaneously, Mueller is raising money to digitize the museum’s collections, which include 150,000 photographs, 8,000 oral histories, 100,000 artifacts, and thousands of documents. “This is not a museum just for people who come here,” Mueller said. “It has got to be a museum that provides some of the most exciting history on the origins, and the war itself, and the postwar era, and exports that knowledge and information, those maps and oral histories, around the world.”
Mueller is already contemplating future projects after his retirement. He hopes to undertake a comparative study of the public memory of World War II in the United States and other nations, a project inspired by his time at the National World War II Museum. “I think people would be very surprised to learn that WWII is not viewed in public memory [in other countries] in this same way Americans do,” Mueller explained. “[Historical memory] is a whole growing field of history for historians, and as a museum … we have a responsibility to the public narrative, but we also have a responsibility to question that narrative, even after it’s designed and developed and put in place in our exhibits.”