This month Stephen Watson marks one year on the job as President and CEO of the National WWII Museum, after taking the helm from retired president Gordon Mueller. Watson, a native of Scotland (he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2015), brings a unique international perspective to the museum, and is poised to oversee the most extensive development of the museum to date, even as it continues to set visitation records each season. On the drafting table are the 230-room Higgins Hotel and Conference Center, the Bollinger Canopy of Peace architectural addition, and the $28 million Hall of Democracy. For Watson, the challenge of leadership remains in continuing to tell the stories of those that led, fought, volunteered and gave of themselves and their families, in a fresh and innovative way for future generations.
Q: How did stories from your childhood in Scotland influence your ideas of and knowledge of World War II?
Like so many of us, my first knowledge of World War II came from a family member. In my case, it was my grandfather – Peter Watson, who was a pilot in the Royal Air Force. He often talked about his experiences in the war – mainly the mundane aspects of his service like the food and traveling to Africa on a troop ship – but it made a big impression on me.
The first time I left Scotland, I was 15, and as I recall we had two choices for our high school trip that year – a ski trip somewhere in Europe or a trip to France to visit the WWI and WWII battlefields. I always loved history, so of course I chose the latter. It was a humbling experience, and I can still vividly remember visiting the commonwealth and American cemeteries and seeing row after row of head stones. So many of them simply carried the inscription “A Soldier of the Great War…known unto God.” I still get chills when I think about that.
Q: What was the biggest surprise, good or bad, you felt upon moving to New Orleans as a young person?
It was a time full of so many emotions – excitement and fear were probably at the top of the list. I had never been on a plane or experienced heat or humidity before, and here I was traveling to New Orleans in August as a 19-year-old to run long distances for the Nicholls [State University] track team. It just so happened that the day I left for America was my grandad’s birthday, and I remember thinking that what he left Scotland to do as a teenager during World War II was way more significant than what I was doing – so just keep calm and enjoy the experience.
In terms of biggest surprise, keep in mind, I wasn’t moving to New Orleans. I was heading to Thibodaux, and this was before you could pop online and check things out. Coming from Scotland, it’s hard to prepare yourself for what to expect in rural south Louisiana, and the climate was even harsher than I expected – I say that through the lens of coming here to run competitively. I was in great shape when I arrived, but nothing could prepare me for the heat and humidity. We were probably running 10 or 11 times per week and in excess of 70 miles per week. It was a tough adjustment, but the people at Nicholls and in Thibodaux were fantastic. They embraced all five of us who came from Scotland to run on track scholarships, and we embraced them.
Q: Why do you think it is important to tell the story of those that fought in World War II for current and future generations?
Well, I believe we have a responsibility to tell the story of one of the most significant and important events in human history. Sixty-five million people, including more than 400,000 of our fellow citizens, paid the ultimate sacrifice to help save freedom and democracy, not just for us here in the United States but for other across the world. That’s a story that needs to be told for the next 1,000 years, and it is a great privilege and responsibility to be the stewards of this important period in our history.
Q: There are so many exciting developments coming up for the museum. What are you most excited to see come to fruition?
That’s a good question and a tough one. All of our brick and mortar projects underway right now are critically important to advancing our mission. The Bollinger Canopy of Peace will become a new symbol for our Museum and city – creating a new nighttime New Orleans landmark and bringing more attention to the peace secured by the sacrifice of so many during World War II. You won’t fully appreciate its grandeur and impact until we complete the sculpture and turn on its lights in November. Of course, we’re also looking forward to the opening of The Higgins Hotel & Conference Center next summer, which will help us meet the needs of our growing number of visitors as well as expand our educational program offerings. Less obvious to the public eye is construction on the Hall of Democracy, which will become our new hub for educational outreach, media, and research while also housing a special exhibit gallery and WWII library. By 2020, we hope to be nearing completion on our final exhibition hall, the Liberation Pavilion, which will explore the final months of the war, the postwar years, and the WWII legacies that continue to impact our lives today. With each new addition, it is always most exciting to see the reaction of our WWII veterans and their families as they experience what we’ve built to honor their stories of services.
Q: How does the museum keep the story fresh and innovative for new generations?
It always starts with a commitment to excellence, authenticity, and innovation. Whether it’s our 4D experience Beyond All Boundaries, our Dog Tag experience that allows you to follow the story of a real person during your visit, or the multi-layered approach to the exhibits in Road to Berlin and Tokyo, we have tried to redefine what it means to visit a history museum. All credit goes to our Board and my predecessor Nick Mueller. We are now applying those same principles to new programs we’re developing in leadership training, overseas travel tours, symposia, conferences, new online learning programs, podcasts, and more. That work will never be complete.
Q: What is your favorite corner, part or exhibit in the museum?
The Museum started with Stephen Ambrose’s collection of personal stories from veterans, and that continues to be our hallmark. War is a human experience, and stories of the men and women of the WWII generation are at the center of everything we do. That’s my favorite part.
At a Glance
Born: Forfar, Scotland
Education: BS in Marketing and MBA from Nicholls State University (and an honorary doctorate, but I guess that’s cheating)
Favorite Book: “Escape from the Deep” by Alex Kershaw
Favorite Movie: “Gallipoli”
Favorite TV show: Walking Dead – yes really – and of course, Band of Brothers
Favorite food: Shrimp Po-Boy
Favorite restaurant: Houston’s is our go-to family restaurant