A new museum in Chicago honors writers with scents, mementos and manuscripts

Photo courtesy of the American Writers Museum

The American Writers Museum opened on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on May 16. The museum was the idea of Malcolm E. O’Hagan, an American businessman with Irish roots, who visited a Dublin museum dedicated to Irish writers and dreamed of establishing a similar tribute to American writers. He gathered supporters and coworkers and began work eight years ago.

According to its website, the mission of the museum is “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.” That is an ambitious quest.

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Rather than simply showing artifacts and manuscripts, the museum presents a number of screens and displays, many of them interactive, to engage visitors with the rich heritage of American writers. An orientation video presents the story of what is distinctive about the American writing experience spanning the country and the many forms of writing that have emerged here.

Children's Room
Photo courtesy of the American Writers Museum

Near the entrance is a space for temporary exhibits; the opening one is “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness.” It is a garden of palms, an immersion into the life and work of the Hawaiian poet W. S. Merwin, who celebrates the riches of nature at his tropical home.

A long wall displays 100 U.S. writers from the first European explorations to the present day. It clearly shows how the events, the trends, the ways of thinking of different eras affected the authors working then—for instance, at the time of the transcendentalists.

What evokes Walden more than the scent of the woods?

Across from that is the “Surprise Bookshelf,” a wall with small panels on hinges that open like books; an author’s name is on the panel in front, a representative quotation appears inside. This kind of interaction is, in fact, a goal and a highlight of the museum. Many panels, screens and displays invite the visitor to touch and to engage, working with the museum as an active participant, not simply an interested observer. Voices and music, sights and even a couple of aromas emerge from the displays. How could one better honor Julia Child and her cookbook writing than with the smell of cookies; what evokes Walden more than the scent of the woods? Besides book authors, newspaper writers, lyrics, cartoons and other media receive their nods.

Nearby is the “Word Waterfall,” an animation in which words slip from top to bottom with imagery and a soundscape. This display invites not interactive learning but rather simply meditation as the words, which are in fact quotations, slip by.

At one point the visitor finds four old pre-electric typewriters. The invitation is to try one’s own hand at writing on these once high-tech machines and to post one’s work nearby. In a temporary exhibit nearby is the 120-foot scroll of thin paper sheets taped together by Jack Kerouac for his manuscript for On the Road, the iconic scripture of the beat generation, which he banged out in a couple of days at a rate of about 100 words a minute.

There is much more: a relaxed reading room, a children’s room, interactive games and puzzles and surveys of visitors’ favorite written works. A Chicago-themed writer’s room features the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Studs Terkel, Jane Addams and the newspaper commentator Mike Royko and the film critic Roger Ebert. The museum also makes connections with museums that have grown up in the former homes of writers across the country.

The underlying thrust of the museum is not just to present artifacts, but rather to engage visitors in a variety of interactive experiences; whether taking a quiz on screen, or turning a panel to find a quote from a writer, or even typing on an old manual typewriter. Now that's writing!

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Frank Pray
9 months 2 weeks ago

Will this museum in the next 50 years have exhibits of new writers using new media to anchor an American soul spinning in a storm of technological changes? The time is upon us when a story will not just be written but experienced as a virtual reality, with the option to be a character in the plot and to change the outcome.

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