Mercedes Niess To Lead H. Lee White Marine Museum Into Future

Submitted Article

OSWEGO, NY – Oswego resident Mercedes Niess knows every inch of the building that houses the H. Lee White Marine Museum on the West First Street Pier.

Mercedes Niess
Mercedes Niess

With the retirement of museum founder and first director Rosemary Nesbitt, Niess will now take on the position of the museum’s executive director.

 “Without Rosemary Nesbitt, this museum would not exist today,” Niess said. “She has done an incredible job preserving the rich history and community identity of this area. We need to continue this effort and expand those accomplishments so the marine museum can be available for generations to come.”

Niess moved to Oswego in 1990 and started as a volunteer at the museum that summer.

She slowly took on more responsibility as volunteer coordinator, assistant director and then associate director beginning in 1993 and has been an avid community supporter ever since.

Her interest in the museum took off and she quickly took on more responsibility.

“As the museum collection grew and more people visited, the need for someone to oversee the day-to-day operations became necessary,” Niess said. “Working with the collection that Mrs. Nesbitt had built and having the experience of cataloging the artifacts prompted me to pursue other educational opportunities in museum studies at both SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.”

Niess took a break from her graduate studies to devote more time to one of her current community projects, the Oswego Public Library Building Project.

“You need strong community institutions to attract economic development and to become a destination,” Niess said. “The library is part of the foundation for our community. A strong library will ultimately help other organizations grow such as the Marine Museum. It’s important to realize the role all these organizations play in a viable community.”

Niess hopes to resume her graduate museum studies with the library project close to completion.

“Over the past several years the museum has made a consorted effort to focus on programs for families and children for the local community,” she said. “We now need to continue to hone our long range plans and develop the goals to ensure that the museum will be here for another 25 years.”
In 1996, the museum received a federal grant through the American Association of Museums to start the process.

“We are now at a point to move forward and have recently been notified that we have received another grant for the second phase of the assessment program.” Niess stated.

Niess plans to seek new funding sources, expand the facility and pursue the possibility of borrowing traveling exhibitions and refurbishing current installations.

“The museum has been successful in preserving the history and community identity through the present collection,” she said. “We need to continue our efforts and look for creative ways to keep that sense of history for generations to come.”

One component that will ensure the accomplishment of the museum’s long-term goals is the museum’s dedicated board of trustees.

The trustees have been preparing for new possibilities and growth and have installed several new members in recent years from across the community.

Newly appointed board president Allen Bjorkman, a local businessman and artist, is excited about the future he sees for the Marine Museum under the direction of Niess.

“We have a bright future ahead and an executive director and a board of trustees who are ready to work together to preserve what has been accomplished while looking for ways to expand and move forward,” he said.

Former board president Joan Waterbury has seen the museum grow and change since its humble beginnings.

She has had the opportunity to work closely with both Nesbitt and Niess.

“Mercedes is a good friend of mine,” Waterbury said. “She is a skilled administrator whose great vision, knowledge and enthusiasm uniquely equip her to continue to enhance the H. Lee White Marine Museum’s mission to showcase the rich history of Oswego and its harbor.”

Over the years, Niess has promoted the museum as one of Oswego’s many tourist attractions.

She has been an outspoken proponent of tourism in the region and the linking of organizations within the community to expand the area’s cultural tourism.

“I work with other organizations in the community to help improve the quality of life in our community for residents and to make it more attractive to tourists,” Niess said. “The city of Oswego and the county have a lot to offer; by creating partnerships, we can better promote our community and attract visitors.”

Niess has been an avid community supporter and volunteer with numerous organizations including: The Oswego Public Library, the Oswego County Tourism Advisory Board, the Oswego Salvation Army, Leave a Legacy for Oswego County and others.

In 2001, she was awarded the Amelia Earhart “Woman of Achievement” Award by the Oswego chapter of Zonta International.

“We have a wonderful community, which has great potential if we all work together,” Niess said. “To me, the success and growth of our community is closely linked with our history and the waterfront. There is much to see and do here in Oswego. My favorite line is ‘If you are bored here, you are not paying attention!’”

Her thought is echoed by others like Jeff Wallace, who also adopted Oswego as his home several years ago.

Wallace, one of the more recent recruits to the museum board noted, “Mercedes is a true believer and committed ambassador of the greater Oswego community. There are times when you just think something can’t or won’t get done, and she is always there to find a way to make it happen. She has the relationships needed to get things done and the vision to make the projects successful. The H. Lee White Marine Museum is poised for great things in the coming months and years. She embodies the type of leadership and foresight necessary to bring people together and make things happen.”

Wallace is excited to be a part of the next phase of the museum’s planning and involvement in the community.

Her work around the community has also gained the attention of county and other local representatives.

City of Oswego Mayor Randy Bateman said, “Mercedes is an active member of the Oswego community, who has served on numerous boards and committees of many local civic organizations. Her commitment to Oswego has been demonstrated by her continuous support of the marine museum and our waterfront area for close to twenty years. Although she has some very big shoes to fill with the retirement of long-time director, Rosemary Nesbitt, I am confident that under her experienced leadership, the H. Lee White Marine Museum will continue to grow and attract visitors to Oswego’s waterfront.”

Niess also plans to work closely with the museum’s landlord and supporter, the Port of Oswego Authority who has generously provided space for the museum since its beginnings in 1982.

The port is a fitting home for the museum.

The H. Lee White Marine Museum preserves and exhibits more than 400 years’ of Oswego’s maritime history.

The museum also operates and maintains the National Historic Landmark, World War II Tug LT-5, which is the last remaining tug of its type that participated in the Normandy invasion, in addition to the 1925 NYS Canal Boat No. 8 and the Eleanor D donated by the Cahill family.

Niess will continue to work closely with the port and the museum board of trustees on plans and opportunities for the museum and surrounding waterfront district.

“I’ve invested a lot of myself in this museum and the collection over the years and I am honored to be given the opportunity to be the executive director of this community treasure,” Niess said.

The H. Lee White Marine Museum is located in the Historic Maritime District on the West First Street Pier in Oswego.

For more information about the museum, call 342-0480 or visit