The American Writers Museum (AWM), set to open in March 2017, is located in downtown Chicago at 180 N. Michigan Ave. Chosen for its central location, Chicago is known as a destination city with a rich literary heritage, which appealed to the museum’s planners. The following are the AWM’s main goals:
- Educate the public about American writers—past and present
- Engage visitors to the Museum in exploring the many exciting worlds created by the spoken and written word
- Enrich and deepen appreciation for good writing in all its forms
- Inspire visitors to discover, or rediscover, a love of reading and writing
Ireland-born Malcolm O’Hagan, the AWM’s founder and president, says he is a frequent visitor to the Dublin Writers Museum. He was surprised to find that there was no U.S. counterpart. “I started talking to people and everybody pretty much had the same reaction I did—[they] thought it’s something we should have and was worthy of pursuit,” he says. Although the museum will have books, it’ll be more of a social space than a place to read. Digital technology will play a role in showcasing works and explaining their significance. O’Hagan sees it as an unofficial writers hall of fame. “Depending on which authors we’re featuring, we may have some first editions, or we may have some manuscripts and other items relating to the writers.” For example, O’Hagan says the AWM recently signed an agreement to display Jack Kerouac’s original scroll manuscript of On the Road for the museum’s first 6 months.
Besides its permanent exhibits, the museum will house special galleries of exhibits and artifacts, as well as host educational programs and special events centered on anniversaries or celebrations such as Banned Books Week. Its seven rooms—Writers Hall, Writing Across America, American Identity, Readers Hall, The Mind of a Writer, Chicago: A City of Writers, and the Children’s Gallery—will each have themed exhibits. (View the museum's online brochure for the floor plan and other details.)
In Writers Hall, visitors can input their ZIP code to view a panoramic display of writers local to them, along with the writers’ works, awards, and inspirations. They can also learn about the museum’s affiliate network of author homes, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
The AWM Affiliates Program partners with these sites to accomplish the following goals:
- Create cooperative programming and joint advocacy opportunities (with each other and with the AWM).
- Exchange ideas and expertise to help introduce authors to new audiences in cost-effective ways.
- Provide networking opportunities among the sites.
- Ensure that each author is accurately represented in the AWM’s exhibits and programming.
O’Hagan says visiting authors’ homes is something he enjoys doing, and he talked to representatives from several of them in New England about his idea for the museum. “It occurred to me that having them affiliated with us in some way could be mutually beneficial, and they all agreed and were excited,” he says. “They all operate independently; even multiple Poe houses or Hemingway houses rarely talk to each other … so they were happy that we then created an association of author home directors who could come together and share experiences. … For [the AWM] the great benefit is that they are experts on their writer, and they have interesting artifacts that we will hope to borrow from time to time, depending on what exhibits we’re running.” The AWM may be located in Chicago, but O’Hagan maintains that it is meant to be a national resource. Having affiliates across the U.S. will help expand the museum’s reach.
Writing Across America
Writing Across America features a floor-to-ceiling interactive map of the U.S. that portrays animated stories showing how writing is part of every region. This exhibit allows visitors to go on “literary journeys” with writers such as Mark Twain and John Steinbeck by viewing where they lived, as well as other famous literary locations such as Margaret Mitchell’s Tara and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables.
American Identity has a 60-foot-long multilayered exhibit wall that facilitates exploration of the country’s literary history from the early Native American oral tradition to the 20th century. Visitors can track authors and their works over time and see how Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and others shaped America’s literary tradition. They can also test their knowledge of featured writings to see if the works “helped create an American voice, identity or genre,” according to the AWM’s brochure. There is also a Surprise Bookshelf with 200 individual works. “Hidden windows can be opened, slid, spun, or twisted to expose dioramas, audio and video programs, and unexpected interactive elements,” such as Kurt Vonnegut reading an excerpt, the brochure states. The floor-to-ceiling Word Waterfall is a “contemplative and meditative” display showing words that “float down and assemble in interesting and memorable ways.”
Readers Hall is the museum’s multipurpose space: It will host films, talks, readings, and other events. Additionally, it features exhibits and artifacts that celebrate the roles of readers and writers in American history and includes an exploration of past generations’ reading habits; the social, cultural, and technological developments that affected writing; and visitors’ favorite works, which they can post and share with other visitors.
The Mind of a Writer
The Mind of a Writer looks at what it takes to produce a masterwork, using four exhibit areas: Story of the Day, A Writer’s Room, Anatomy of a Masterwork, and Word Play. “A roll of paper stretches from the ceiling to an easel, providing the medium for a story. Every day, AWM staff will write a great line from an American masterwork on the paper and let visitors continue the story,” the brochure states. A multiuser table with a touch screen allows for an in-depth look at 20 masterworks and their authors. Word Play features tabletops with games fostering creativity with words—visitors can invent new words, see how word choice changes sentences’ meanings, and guess the authors of works.
Chicago: A City of Writers
Chicago: A City of Writers celebrates writers who worked in Chicago for at least a portion of their careers, via interactive touch screens, maps, display objects, and a menu of stories. Visitors can explore tactile objects and use the interactive touch screens to view classic Chicago literature as well as maps of publishing houses, libraries, and bookstores.
The Children’s Gallery
The Children’s Gallery celebrates the “[g]reat American writers [who] have created beloved children’s works of enduring power and characters who are an indelible part of the American imagination,” according to the brochure. Featured authors include Dr. Seuss, L. Frank Baum, and Eric Carle.
O’Hagan says representatives from the Smithsonian Institution were generous with their time and advice on how to plan the museum. “[O]ne of the things they recommended is that we not hire a single curator, because you would run the risk of getting that individual’s biases and point of view. So from the outset, we decided to take a team approach, and we really looked for people who had a broad understanding of American literature, not people who are experts in one book or one writer,” says O’Hagan. These authors, professors, museum directors, publishing professionals, and others make up the AWM’s National Advisory Council.
The museum’s curators consist of the five-person Content Leadership Team and other subject matter experts, from fields such as academia and journalism, who oversee all of the museum’s content to ensure that it is cohesive, consistent, and not repetitive, O’Hagan says. One of them is Donna Seaman, senior editor at Booklist, who says, “The American Writers Museum has recruited an amazing group of literary scholars, writers, publishers, and editors to determine the content of the museum’s lively, interactive displays. The museum will not own a collection, but rather present visual and audio displays that link the lives of writers to their work, as well as tell the story of foundational American documents and diverse works of literature.”
She notes that the museum will explore the history and impact of all types of works and genres, including autobiographies, poetry, plays, journalism, screenplays, fiction, children’s books, and government documents such as the U.S. Constitution. “Any artifacts on display—manuscripts, writers’ belongings, will be borrowed from the museum’s many affiliates, which include authors’ homes and museums across the country, as well as public and academic museums.”
There is an endless list of possible speakers, O’Hagan says. “And the biggest challenge initially is what writers and what works to feature, and that’s what the curatorial teams are addressing. One of the most important things is to keep the museum alive and interesting, particularly to locals.”
Plan Your Visit
Admission is $12 for adults and $5 for students. The museum estimates attendance at 120,000 paying visitors annually. “The museum is designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of visitors from casual readers to avid lovers of literature. The interactive nature of the museum will especially engage young people. Lectures and presentations for school groups will be an essential offering,” the brochure notes.
O’Hagan says the American Library Association was an early supporter of the museum. “Librarians like the idea that anything that focuses on writing and writers and books is very important. … I think it’s a bigger challenge than ever for teachers and for librarians to get people to read novels and poetry and essays.” He hopes the museum’s 3D, social approach to celebrating writing will encourage visitors to take more of an interest in these types of works. “We will have an electronic pen, so that as you’re walking through the museum and you encounter writers or works that you’re interested in, you just put the pen on it, that will get recorded, and when you get home, you’ll have a list of books that you’d like to read or authors you’d like to find more about, and you can take that list and hopefully go to your public library and check the books out and read them,” he says.
“Librarians will enjoy the unusual approach to diverse writers’ lives and their crucial role in shaping American society,” Seaman says. “The museum will offer a fresh perspective on American writing, publishing, reading habits, and the essential role libraries have played in fostering a love of reading and making books available to everyone. Museum visitors will be able to enter titles of favorite works and authors into our interactive displays and gain a new understanding of the historical, cultural, social, and geographical context for the creation of these works. In all, it will be a revitalizing and exciting appreciation of the great diversity and significance of American literature here and around the world.”