Chicago, a city known for its myriad of museums and cultural attractions, has just added one more. The Museum of American Writers opened on May 16 in the heart of downtown, and Malcolm O’Hagan, its 70-year-old Irish-born founder, looks happy enough to jump into a jig.
As a writer celebrating the sale of her first novel after years of revisions and rejections, it is triumphant that her idea seed has fully blossomed and appears poised to thrive.
It all started eight years ago, after one of O’Hagan’s many visits to the Dublin Writers Museum in Ireland. When O’Hagan, a literature enthusiast and manufacturing executive, returned to his Maryland home, he was eager to compare it at the Museum of American Writers. There was just one problem: America did not have such an institution.
“It didn’t exist, to my surprise, and I said, ‘I’m going to do something,’ and now we have it, ‘he said in his subtle Irish brogue.
Ideas rather than artefacts
The first museum of its kind in the country, this innovative institution pays tribute to the collective achievements of the country’s writers. It covers a wide range of genres: fiction, non-fiction, children’s fiction, plays, even sports writing, a recognition that good writing takes many forms.
Writers as diverse as Dr Seuss and Tennessee Williams are celebrated through state-of-the-art interactive exhibits with touch screens.
Thirteen permanent exhibitions take place in six galleries. Digital word game tables encourage visitors to fill in the blanks in famous novels or test their skills in a word composition game.
An ever-changing program of events, such as lectures and workshops, will take place in Readers Hall.
This is not the kind of place where you will see Mark Twain’s pipe or Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter. Unlike many of the country’s hometown museums dedicated to individual authors, this installation is more about preserving ideas than artefacts.
There is one notable exception.
A temporary exhibit in the writer’s room, “The Beat Journey: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road,” features Kerouac’s original 120-foot manuscript typed in parchment form, an icon of the post-literary movement. war known as the Beat Generation which flouted middle class conventions. It will be visible until October 27.
If that prompts you to tap into your own literary masterpiece, a paper-laden manual typewriter is ready and waiting for you.
Not meant to be a library
As visitors browse other galleries in the 11,000 square foot space, some may be surprised at the shortage of books, but this was never meant to be a library.
“The emphasis is on telling stories about writers and their works and their importance,” says O’Hagan.
“It’s a small museum, but you could literally spend days and days here discovering all the writers and all the important works.”
On occasion, these works have radically changed American culture, shaking collective consciousness by exposing unsavory realities about gender, class and race, galvanizing a movement towards social justice. Think of John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath, who captured the plight of migrant farm workers during the Depression.
Steinbeck and many other luminaries can be found in the American Voices Gallery, a sprawling timeline of deceased authors that chronicles the national history of writing from the 16th century to the 2000s. The writers are featured on panels that visitors view. turn to learn facts they may not have known.
In case you forgot Arthur Miller’s motivation for The crucible, which is required reading for many high school students, simply rotate the panel displaying the playwright’s pensive face. It reveals that the historical drama about the 17th-century witch trials in Salem was inspired by the political climate of Miller’s day. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated and unfairly persecuted Americans suspected of having links to Communism. Unlike the citizens of Salem in his play, Miller refused to involve anyone when called to testify before the committee.
Of course, writers who have lived and worked in the Windy City have their own sanctuary. “Chicago Writers: Visionaries and Troublemakers” is an exhibition dedicated to prolific authors such as the African-American novelist and poet Richard wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and social critic Mike Royko, consulting columnist Ann Landers and film critic Roger Ebert.
The Children’s Literature Gallery is a fun and bright space designed to instill a love of the written word in young people. Stocked shelves encourage little ones to snuggle up in mom or dad’s lap while listening to the escapades of this crazy cat in the hat or the adventures of playful Max in Where the wild things are.
It’s a gallery that O’Hagan hopes to have a lot of use.
“I want young people to be inspired to become writers and to read,” says O’Hagan. “I want them to understand that writers have a profound influence on our culture, our history and our daily lives.”
Who knows? Perhaps one of the museum’s smaller visitors will one day have their own exhibit.
Tracey Teo is a freelance writer from Indiana.
If you are going to
Museum of American Writers: 180 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-374-8790, americanwritersmuseum.org.
Where to stay
Omni Chicago Hotel: 676 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-944-6664, omnihotels.com/hotels/chicago.
Where to eat
The Gage: 24 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-372-4243, thegagechicago.com.