PAST PERFECT

America’s Rich Literary Past Gets Its Own Museum

American authors at last get the respect they’re due as a new museum dedicated to their accomplishments opens this week in Chicago

Barry Brecheisen/American Writers Museum

CHICAGO—For all the varying kinds of museums that America is home to—everything from space to sex to voodoo—there has never been a museum designed to celebrate writers.

Until now.

The American Writers Museum opened to the public in Chicago on Tuesday on the second floor of a drab, nondescript building sandwiched between a Citibank branch and a Noodles & Company and just a few doors down from a Catholic bookstore on the city’s world famous Michigan Avenue.

So why Chicago?

“(The museum’s organizers) wanted it to be somewhere with a rich literary heritage like Chicago has,” says Carey Cranston, president of the American Writers Museum. “They really felt like being here in a destination city with Chicago’s rich literary tradition and strong philanthropic support for cultural institutions. And it’s in the middle of the country. They wanted people to come from all over to this museum.”

Cranston says founder Malcolm O’Hagan, a retired executive from the Washington, D.C. area, got the idea for the museum while volunteering at the Library of Congress. During a trip back to his native Ireland to visit family members, he noticed that there was a Dublin Writers Museum. So, when he got back to the United States, he asked around at the Library of Congress to find out where he could find a similar one in the United States.

“And all the people at the Library of Congress said there isn’t one,” Cranston says.

So O’Hagan set about putting together one himself. He first found some people who felt the same way that he did, that the United States needed a museum devoted to writers. From there, the group began fundraising. The Smithsonian referred the group to a design firm, Boston-based Amaze Design, which counts the Chicago History Museum and the National Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C., among its other clients according to its website.

O'Hagan consulted with a content leadership team to determine which writers were going to be featured in the museum initially and which weren't, a process that Cranston says the project took several years to hammer out. "There are some things like if you walk around, you’ll notice that nobody in here is alive unless it’s something featured in the changing exhibit gallery," Cranston says. "This is a place where we’re celebrating the past and then promoting the present."

The project is eight years and millions of dollars in the making—$9.8 million to date, to be exact, or roughly $200,000 shy of the project’s initial fundraising goal of $10 million, Cranston says.

“It was funded almost entirely by private donations,” he says. “We’ve had some corporate donors. A lot of it has been personal donations.”

Be warned that if you visit the museum expecting to see old books or other literary artifacts, you’ll leave largely disappointed. That does not mean there’s anything dull about this museum. Enter the exhibit and you’re greeted by a study in contrasts: light and a mélange of colorful books hanging from the ceiling; to your left, a gallery of prominent Chicago writers; sounds of a video playing in the dark to your right from the A Nation of Writers exhibit.

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There is an exhibit area called the Writer’s Room, in which visitors can see, for example, the original scroll on which Jack Kerouac typed his iconic novel On The Road, on loan to the museum from the collection of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who paid $2.43 million for the artifact at auction in 2001. The scroll is the only physical artifact in this particular display. But the museum doesn’t pay much attention to things authors owned or wore. Instead, it focuses on the things they produced: their books.

The museum features six permanent dedicated areas, each with its own theme, including a children’s room that spotlights classic stories such as Charlotte’s Web and Where the Wild Things Are. There’s also a “surprise bookshelf” that holds no actual books but rather interactive displays designed to teach visitors more about a particular author and the work they produced. What’s noteworthy about this bookshelf is that it’s not limited to those who have authored books. For instance, one can learn more about Tupac Shakur’s classic song “Dear Mama” and then just inches below find out more about Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. This was done, in part, because the written word isn’t limited to books but rather is intricately interwoven into the fabric of American society. Then there’s the area called The Mind of a Writer, featuring manual typewriters that visitors can use to author their own stories. The underlying motivation behind these exhibits is simple: Engage visitors and get them excited about classic works and the authors behind them.

“The mission of this museum is really to celebrate the artists of the past and engage people,” Cranston says. “To do that in the modern era, you need to get interactive.” To that end, the American Writers Museum, like most newly minted museums, is full of touch-screen displays. “You need people to have fun, and you need to make them think,” Cranston says. “Everybody can go online and look up these authors and read their biographies. We wanted them to interact with that process, to see them in a context in a stretch of who came before them and who came after them.”

The museum celebrates the authors of the past, but it will also give the writers of the present a space in which they can connect with their audiences. The museum’s reader’s room will host book signings and author readings. With brick-and-mortar bookstores becoming scarcer all the time, Cranston thinks the museum could become a place where readers can see their living literary heroes face to face.

“We want to be a place where publishers will want to send famous authors from around the country to sign their book here or do a reading here,” Cranston says.

For now, it’s a small museum—a visitor could conceivably see the entire thing in 10 or 15 minutes if they decided not to interact with any of the exhibits. But doing a quick lap of the museum is not the point, Cranston says.

“We want to get people in here, have programming that gets them excited and brings people back,” he says. “Once we start seeing that happen on a regular basis, we’ll look at how we can expand.”

IF YOU GO:

American Writers Museum is located at 180 N. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Tickets are $12 for adults, and children under 12 years old get in free.

Matt Lindner is a Chicago writer.