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From past to future: National World War II Museum

Years before there were any cranes in the sky on Tulane Avenue, they could be seen in the Warehouse District -- constructing a fairly modest building called the D-Day Museum. It was built to house the artifacts and papers collected over the years by the eminent historian Stephen Ambrose. The Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans, Ambrose came to be known by many as America’s historian, having published more than 30 books, including the biographies of both President Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, Band of Brothers, Citizen Soldiers and many others.

Since its opening on June 6, 2000, the D-Day Museum has grown to became a three-block-long homage to America’s involvement in the “war that changed the world.”  Under the leadership of its President and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller and its active local and national board, the D-Day Museum’s name was changed, and in 2003, it was officially designated by the Congress of the United States as America’s National World War II Museum.

Dr. Nick Muellar

Dr. Nick Muellar

Yet, for all its bricks and mortar success and its recognition nationally and internationally for its mission, there have always been those who have questioned the value of having a war museum. Nick Mueller has a ready response to that position.

“We’re not a war museum,” he says. “We are a museum about the American experience through the greatest conflict in world history. Our mission is about why that war was fought; of course, about the war itself; how it was won; and lastly, what it means today. What is its lasting legacy and meaning in your life and in mine, and what are the fruits of that victory? Well, they are legion.”

Among them, says Mueller, are the introduction of the computer and the original technology for today’s cell phones. But for him, that is only part of the story.

“This was the crucible of the 20th century, and there hasn’t been a conflict like it in world history. It has to be understood as one of the milestones in our country’s survival as a democracy. If you think back to the 18th century, to the Revolutionary War, when this country was founded, and the Civil War when it was united, the 20th century was the time in World War II when we had to defend ourselves against a very powerful radical regime, a racist regime, intent on conquering the world.

“We were behind the eight-ball; outnumbered 20 to one, totally unprepared, in a depression and most of the country in an isolationist mood. So how did America do that? How did we get in a position to go from five hundred thousand to 16 million men under arms, equip them, feed them, transport them, put them ashore against the enemy and build the strongest force in the world? The whole country did it, and it’s a huge story; an epic story.”

As Professor of European History at the University of New Orleans, then Dean, Vice Chancellor and then the Founding President of UNO’s Research and Technology Park, Mueller spent 33 years as an educator before taking the reins of a museum. A dyed-in-the-wool academic, he believes that education is the major role of the National WWII Museum and he takes that seriously. But having a continuing stream of visitors is something every museum also worries about; how to keep the people coming? Clearly the National World War II Museum resonates with that era’s veterans and their families. But who will come when they are gone?

“We heard a lot that our future market was going to die off. I used to tell people that the Civil War and Gettysburg still get four million people a year going to see it,” he says wryly. “But the short answer is that less than one half of one percent of our 400,000 visitors are World War II veterans.”

Mueller and his staff are reaching out and attracting younger students and others interested in history with a variety of activities. One major event coming up soon is the 2013 International Conference on WWII taking place November 21-23. Participating will be General David Petraeaus, Commanding General of the Multinational Force-Iraq; Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former senior editor at the Washington Post; and Paul Kennedy, Director of International Security Studies at Yale; among others.

For more information on the International Conference on WWII and the National World War II Museum go to www.nationalww2museum.org.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]