As vice president of the ever-growing National World War II Museum, Nicholls alumnus Stephen Watson is out to redefine what a 21st-century museum experience should be.
It happens almost daily for Stephen Watson. While walking to a meeting or checking in with the customer service staff, he notices a World War II veteran.
On Memorial Day, it happened twice. Given a special tag to wear, veterans are easy to spot in the cavernous pavilion of the National World War II Museum. Each time he sees one, Watson, the museum’s chief operating officer and vice president, introduces himself and thanks the veteran for his service. Each time, the reaction is nearly the same.
“They’re genuinely humbled and gratified. They don’t think of themselves as anything special, but they walk into this museum, and all of a sudden, they are the star,” says Watson (BA ’97, MBA ’98). “Most of the time, they’re with their sons and their daughters who are hearing things about their parents’ service that they never heard before.”
Such powerful reminders of the museum’s mission and impact keep Watson energized on long, stress-filled days. And he’s had his fair share of them.
When Watson joined the museum as its membership director in 2002, the idea of building a multi-complex, worldclass institution was a lofty, far-off dream. Founded in 2000 by historian Stephen Ambrose, the original $25 million institution sought to tell the story of the D-Day invasion. Now, Watson, who was appointed COO in 2007, is playing a key leadership role in a $300 million expansion project that will quadruple the initial facility’s size and cover the entire war effort.
He’s already ushered in several new openings: the Solomon Victory Theater, showing a Tom Hanks-produced 4D film; a Stage Door Canteen, featuring big bands and USO-like performances; the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion, displaying the artifact restoration process; and the American Sector restaurant and Soda Shop, serving Chef John Besh’s cuisine. By 2015, he expects to add three more pavilions to that list.
“We’re building what we believe will be one of the finest museums of any kind in the world,” says Watson, who credits Nicholls for leading him to a career path he describes as “pretty remarkable.”
While growing up in Brechin, Scotland, Watson listened to his grandfather tell stories about being a British Royal Air Force pilot during WWII and flying an iconic propeller-powered Spitfire — one of which now hangs in the New Orleans museum. But back then, merely riding in an aircraft, not to mention piloting one armed with artillery, was incomprehensible to the young Watson.
He didn’t board his first plane until Aug. 14, 1994, when he left Scotland en route for Nicholls. It had not been his intention to move to the U.S. until he met classmate Drew Sharkey (BS ’96) at the University of Aberdeen. Sharkey had signed up with College Prospects of America, an agency that helps find athletic scholarships for international students. Nicholls made an offer to Sharkey, who encouraged Watson, a national high school track champion, to follow suit.
Months later, Watson and four other Scottish track and field athletes were Thibodaux-bound. Clueless about south Louisiana, he recalls being concerned about running in such a warm climate.
“I’ll always remember the day I arrived,” he says. “I walked out of the airport in the mid-August heat and said, ‘This can’t be real.’”
Aside from the temperature, the people at Nicholls — particularly former College of Business Administration professors Chris Cox and Beth LaFleur — left the deepest impressions on Watson. “They are indicative of what I think makes Nicholls a special place: small class sizes and professors who get to know you and take a personal interest in your development and success,” he says. “One of the things I enjoyed most about my time at Nicholls is that 15 years later, I count these people as my friends.”
His college years had their rough spots, like most do. Watson spent more time than he would have liked in the training room rather than competing on the track. And he resided in Long Hall — an imperfect living experience that drew him back to campus to gladly witness its implosion in 2008. Regardless, he took a liking to Nicholls and stayed for his master’s degree.
During that time, Watson picked up his first experience in fundraising and development through a graduate assistantship with the athletics department. His supervisor, Easton LeBouef, former associate athletics director, gave him much responsibility on game days and with Colonel Club initiatives.
“The fact that I could hand tasks over to a student and turn around without worrying was a miracle in and of itself. With Steve, it was no problem,” says LeBouef, who remarks that the tall, lanky Watson looks the same now as he did in college. “He went beyond the norm and always had such great enthusiasm. His success at the museum now goes to show his perseverance and work ethic.”
Watson’s graduate experience parlayed into a job as membership director and then development director at WWNO, the National Public Radio affiliate station at the University of New Orleans, where Watson also taught marketing. In 2002, he noticed a director of membership job opening at the museum.
“There’s a lot of good will and excitement in the community about what this institution has done,” Watson says about why he applied. “As a young guy with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, it was a great opportunity for me to build and grow a national membership program for something that I cared about and thought was important for New Orleans and for this country.”
The National D-Day Museum, as it was then known, had about 25 employees and 3,000 members. Today, the National WWII Museum, which was renamed in 2006, employs around 275 people, 140 of whom report to Watson.
What’s more remarkable is that Watson has grown the museum’s membership to 130,000 — the largest of any museum in the country, even bigger than the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. Almost 90 percent of WWII Museum members live out of state, the vast majority never having stepped inside its doors.
Instead of the usual sales pitch (buying a membership, which includes yearly admission, is cheaper than buying two daily tickets), Watson’s team targets people who fought or lived through the period and family members of the 16 million people who served in WWII.
“We put to the back of the list a lot of the transactional components that typically come with a membership, which wouldn’t appeal to someone in, say, California,” he explains. “Our message was that we have to educate younger generations about what happened during this time and why it’s still important to us today.”
For the self-described “bean counter,” becoming COO in 2007 led to a refreshing crash course in WWII history, artifact restoration and museum exhibit design. When it comes to maintaining current exhibits or opening a new wing or building, Watson manages nearly every aspect: raising funds, collecting and preserving artifacts, designing exhibits, creating operational and staffing plans, marketing the museum and — ultimately — ensuring that visitors consider their experience memorable. His latest mission is to help redefine what a museum experience should be.
Exhibit A: Beyond All Boundaries.
The 4D film could almost be mistaken for a Universal Studios theme park attraction. Inside the 250-seat Solomon Victory Theater, seats rumble, life-size props rise from the floor, snow falls from above, and planes appear to fly right at audience members, who flinch as the aircrafts begin firing. Hollywood actors including Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Kevin Bacon and John Goodman lend their voices to narrate the story of WWII, from the Pearl Harbor bombing to America’s final victory.
“The artifacts and the real materials will always be a signature component; that’s part of what makes museums special,” Watson says. “But museums are no longer just about exhibit cases and text on the wall.
“Beyond All Boundaries still uses archival footage and the real words of veterans; it involves scholars and historians in the process to ensure authenticity. But it’s also creating a much richer experience so that a sixth-grader walks out of the theater and is wowed by it and wants to learn more, wants to read a book about it, wants to go to the exhibits, wants to come back.”
Watson is applying this approach to each aspect of the museum’s expansion. The US Freedom Pavilion: Thee Boeing Center, which opened in January 2013, features Final Mission, a submarine experience where visitors will assume the identity of crew members and go aboard the last patrol of the most decorated submarine in the Pacific.
By 2014, admission tickets will come with a dog tag outfitted with a radio-frequency identification chip. Aboard a re-created 1940s train, visitors will use their scannable dog tag to select a real serviceman or woman to follow. At five points throughout the exhibits, visitors will be able to check in using their dog tag and find out what was happening to their selected person at that point in the war. The dog tags will also allow them to scan photos, letters and other museum content, which they will be able to digitally access from their home computers.
“We think this will be one of the most innovative uses of this technology in any museum of any kind in the country,” says Watson, who Gambit named to its 40 Under 40 list in 2011. “We have to use technology and interactives to engage our audience while they’re here, but we also have to think about how to engage people before they get here and after their visit.”
In addition to the physical museum expansion, Watson and his team are working toward digitizing collections and making them more accessible online. They’ve also grown their distance learning programs, allowing museum historians to deliver WWII lessons to classrooms across America via compressed video.
“It’s more than just a museum in New Orleans,” Watson says. “It’s a true commitment to be a national education institution and use all the tools we have to engage K-12 audiences, enthusiasts, historians, researchers, writers and filmmakers.”
The Wednesday after Memorial Day, it happened again. As Watson was walking down the pavilion stairs, he noticed a gentleman wearing a WWII veteran tag. The 91-year-old who had served in the 92nd Division in Europe was visiting the museum for the first time. As Watson spoke with the man, he noticed his humbled, overwhelmed, surprised emotions.
“I hear it a lot, ‘I’ve been planning on coming to the museum; I want to come.’ I always tell people, ‘If you mean that, you need to come now.’ Because you can walk into this museum now on a daily basis and talk to World War II veterans. But it’s an experience that won’t be happening here for much longer.”
Watson says he’s been to far too many funerals, lost many good friends during his tenure. But those relationships — with the men and women the museum was built to honor — are what he cherishes the most about what he does.
With Watson’s parents and siblings still in Scotland, the museum staff and volunteers have become his extended family. Nearly everyone in the museum knows him by name — from the security guard to the WWII veteran who talks with visitors about the New Orleans-built Higgins boats. Watson, who is married to an “unbelievably supportive” south Louisiana woman named Gina, often brings their 5-year-old daughter, Kate, along with him to work on Saturday mornings. Their 3-year-old son, Matthew, looks forward to any chance he gets to visit “dad’s museum.” Now that he’s a father, Watson often thinks back to the day he told his parents he wanted to go to Nicholls. They hadn’t expected him to leave Scotland and certainly didn’t expect that he’d stay in the United States beyond college.
“I certainly could never have predicted any of this,” Watson says. “But you know, my parents always taught me to have a good work ethic. I grew up on a farm in Scotland; I worked hard as a child. Throughout my life — when I was running, in school and in my professional career — I’ve tried to not get too high, not get too low. You’ve just got to keep focused. Keep pushing forward.”
— Written by Stephanie Detillier, publications coordinator
This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.