The Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum

Poets and Writers - - Trends - –AN­DREW MCFADYEN-KETCHUM

What do Tu­pac Shakur’s “Dear Mama,” Ju­lia Child’s Mas­ter­ing the Art of French Cook­ing, Jack Ker­ouac’s 120-foot scroll upon which he fa­mously penned On the Road, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birm­ing­ham Jail” all have in com­mon? They are on dis­play, side by side, at the Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum (AWM) in down­town Chicago, which of­fi­cially opened its doors to the pub­lic in May.

A mu­seum fo­cused solely on the na­tion’s writ­ers and writ­ing, the AWM is the first of its kind in the United States. Founder Mal­colm O’Ha­gan, an Ir­ish en­gi­neer and sci­en­tist who lives in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., was in­spired by the Dublin Writ­ers Mu­seum, which opened in 1991. “I love lit­er­a­ture, in par­tic­u­lar po­etry, and just love spend­ing my time with Ir­ish writ­ers there,” O’Ha­gan says. “When I looked into vis­it­ing an Amer­i­can ver­sion, I was shocked to learn none ex­isted. So I de­cided to start one my­self.”

Eight years later, af­ter nearly $10 mil­lion in pri­vate funds was raised and “months upon months” were spent de­bat­ing the mu­seum’s de­sign and fo­cus, the AWM was born. Housed a block from Mil­len­nium Park, on Chicago’s “cul­tural mile”—so called for its many mu­se­ums, col­leges, and the­aters—the nearly 11,000-square­foot mu­seum dis­plays ev­ery­thing from Walt Whit­man’s verse to Oc­tavia But­ler’s reflections on writ­ing to Timex’s fa­mous slo­gan, “It takes a lick­ing and keeps on ticking.” The va­ri­ety is no ac­ci­dent. Rather than hire a sin­gle ex­pert of Amer­i­can let­ters, the AWM formed a com­mit­tee of writ­ers, schol­ars, crit­ics, and arts ad­min­is­tra­tors from around the coun­try to de­ter­mine what the mu­seum should cel­e­brate.

“When we set out to de­fine ‘Amer­i­can writ­ing,’ we re­al­ized we didn’t want to just house lit­er­a­ture,” says O’Ha­gan. “We also weren’t in­ter­ested in the idea of the ‘best’ writ­ing or in seal­ing the mu­seum off for aca­demics or quote-un­quote ‘readers.’” In­stead, the mu­seum aims for a broader reach, fo­cus­ing on how Amer­i­can writ­ers and writ­ing have shaped the coun­try’s iden­tity and cul­ture and con­tinue to in­form ev­ery­day lives. “Our mis­sion,

like per­haps all im­por­tant writ­ing, is to in­clude, not ex­clude. So we fo­cused more on the ex­tra­or­di­nary his­tory of Amer­i­can writ­ing, the ar­ray of types and back­grounds of peo­ple who have con­trib­uted to it, and the story of Amer­ica our writ­ing col­lec­tively tells.”

To cre­ate this in­clu­sive space, O’Ha­gan and his team of de­vel­op­ers hired Amaze De­sign, a firm known for cre­at­ing vis­ually strik­ing, in­ter­ac­tive learn­ing spa­ces such as the Amer­i­can Jazz Mu­seum in Kansas City, Mis­souri, and the Birm­ing­ham Civil Rights In­sti­tute in Alabama. The fi­nal prod­uct is a vi­brant, in­spir­ing space that al­lows mu­se­um­go­ers to in­ter­act with the writ­ers of Amer­ica’s past and present and get in­spired to write them­selves. In “Mind of a Writer,” pa­trons can bang away like Hem­ing­way at a bank of old type­writ­ers and hang their mas­ter­pieces on the “Story of the Day” wall for oth­ers to en­joy. The “Word Play” ex­hibit houses a va­ri­ety of word games on a vir­tual table­top, en­cour­ag­ing vis­i­tors to write and share orig­i­nal po­ems. “This isn’t a li­brary,” says O’Ha­gan. “It’s not a place where you want to go sit down and read. It’s a three-di­men­sional space where you in­ter­act with what you find, not just look at it and move on.”

In ad­di­tion to the in­ter­ac­tive por­tions of the mu­seum, sev­eral ex­hibits fo­cus on the his­tory and range of Amer­i­can writ­ing. A mu­ral de­pict­ing a tree full of squir­rels reading fa­mous chil­dren’s books fills an en­tire wall of the “Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Gallery.” The ex­hibit in the main hall, “Amer­i­can Voices,” cel­e­brates a hun­dred em­blem­atic Amer­i­can writ­ers below a sixty-foot time­line of Amer­i­can his­tory, start­ing with the ex­plo­ration

of the Amer­i­cas by Euro­peans in 1492 and end­ing in the present day. On an op­po­site wall, a “Sur­prise Book­shelf” en­cour­ages vis­i­tors to ex­plore less lit­er­ary writ­ing, such as cook­books, sports writ­ing, jour­nal­ism, and song lyrics.

So far, the mu­seum has been a suc­cess. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cook County board pres­i­dent Toni Preck­win­kle, au­thors Stu­art Dy­bek and David McCul­lough, and other writ­ers, book­sell­ers, and com­mu­nity mem­bers at­tended the rib­bon-cut­ting cer­e­mony in May, and the mu­seum is al­ready on track to reach its goal of 120,000 vis­i­tors an­nu­ally. The mu­seum also of­fers reg­u­lar events and re­sources, such as read­ings, work­shops, au­thor dis­cus­sions, and sto­ry­telling hours, and the staff hopes to ex­pand the mu­seum’s pro­gram­ming by part­ner­ing with writ­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try.

The mu­seum’s open­ing comes at a ten­u­ous time for the arts in Amer­ica, with fund­ing for the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts and the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Hu­man­i­ties be­ing threat­ened. But its early suc­cess is a re­minder of the pub­lic’s in­ter­est in Amer­i­can writ­ers and writ­ing, and the AWM seems poised to af­firm and pro­tect the value of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for years to come. “It will be an enor­mous re­source,” Dy­bek said at the mu­seum’s open­ing cer­e­mony. “And hope­fully it will spread through the United States this no­tion that you can have this kind of lo­cal, cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion— some­thing that passes on the cul­ture.”

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