While Chicago is renowned as a city filled with museums, it has recently made room for another. It's a venue which is the first and only one of its kind in the nation.
This is a place where America’s great literary figures can be celebrated, newly discovered and re-discovered all under one roof.
The American Writers Museum at 180 N. Michigan Ave., opened to the public on May 16. It has been nearly eight years in the making and offers something for every age group. The museum is the culmination of a dream and many years of hard work on the part of Malcolm E. O’Hagan, an Irish immigrant who came to America as a graduate student. Although the retired engineer lives in Washington D.C., O’Hagan has always had a soft spot in his heart for the City of Big Shoulders.
“Malcolm has always been a lover of books and literature, and when he retired he began volunteering at the Library of Congress,” said AWM president Carey Cranston. “After returning to Ireland for a visit, Malcolm went to the Irish Writers Museum in Dublin. When he returned to the U.S., he started asking where the American Writers Museum was and was surprised to discover there wasn’t one.”
“This country needed an American Writers Museum,” O’Hagan said. “I appreciate the profound influence writers and their works have had on history and culture. Growing up in Ireland, literature is a very big part of the Irish culture and tradition. Here in America, if you think about it, everything all started with the Declaration of Independence. This whole country is based upon the written word - the Declaration, the Gettsyburg Address, Martin Luther King’s letter from prison, and so many other important writings. Those things, along with the works of all the great novelists and playwrights, have had a huge impact on our way of thinking and on our understanding of who we are as individuals and as a nation. That’s what made me so passionate about this (museum).”
Projections are for 100,000-120,000 visitors per year to walk through the doors. The museum’s proximity to many other cultural attractions like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center and The Chicago Symphony Center should help accomplish that goal.
“The museum has five permanent galleries each containing three to four exhibits and two changing galleries – The Writers Room and The Meijer Exhibition Gallery, where exhibits will change two to three times each year,” Cranston said. “The mission is to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”
Some might expect a place celebrating authors to be aimed at intellectuals and high-brows, but AWM is not a stuffy, stoic place. “This is not an artifact-based museum. The exhibits are primarily interactive panels, touchscreens, and large physical pieces full of text and information,” Cranston said. “We are focused on the words, the authors and the people, not on the (physical) books themselves.”
The museum’s themed galleries, interactive exhibits, educational programs, and special events will bring visitors face-to-face with great writers. Attendees will have the opportunity to “visit” writers’ homes along with fictional places from novels, such as the Tara Plantation from “Gone with the Wind.”
The one historic artifact currently at AWM is the Jack Kerouac “On the Road” scroll, on loan for the next six months in The Writer’s Room. Prior to coming to Chicago, it was on exhibit in Germany and before that in Paris. “The scroll was something planned during the early development of the museum, when the concept of The Writer’s Room as a space to focus on one writer at a time was developed,” Cranston said.
“Word Waterfall has emerged as an early exhibit favorite,” said Cranston. “It’s really an art installation, where projected lights onto words create images and words on the wall act as pixels in a picture. For instance, one features a beautiful image of the Statue of Liberty and the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem come up -- ‘Give us your tired and your poor…’.”
A history of writers
“American Voices is a chronology of 100 different authors all deceased,” added Cranston. “Within our more permanent exhibits, we look at authors who are of the past and we celebrate them. It’s through our programming in Reader’s Hall where we will host readings and workshops, that will celebrate the writers of the present. The exhibit called The Surprise Bookshelf is a place where we focus on different types of writing from songwriting, to speech writing, to sports writing.”
Story of the day
Within the next few weeks, AWM visitors will have the opportunity to become writers themselves, as Cranston’s team unveils Story of the Day, where computers allow people to be part of a daily communal story. “There will be an opening sentence prompt every morning, then visitors can continue the story. Each person’s contribution to the daily story will be limited to a maximum of a few hundred words. At the end of the day we’ll see where we end up and they can read the ‘published’ story (online).”
Opening the doors of the AWM was no small feat. “It was an easy sell in the sense of people being enthusiastic about the idea, but it was hard to raise the money,” O'Hagan said, about the long road to bring his dream to fruition. “With a project like this, there are always questions -- ‘Will it get off the ground?’ and ‘Will it be sustainable?’ Most who put up money early on were people I know who were very generous to do so, because it was really an act of faith. They had to believe I could actually get this done. We started with nothing more than an idea.” Ultimately, nearly $10 million were raised.
“The American Writers Museum will become a beloved attraction for Chicago residents and visitors from all over the world, providing an exciting and unprecedented opportunity to showcase our great writers and their works in one of the nation’s most culturally rich cities,” Cranston said.
The literary history of the city which has spawned such iconic wordsmiths as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Shel Silverstein, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry, played a very big part in why Chicago beat out other interested cities (Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., etc.) as the home of the American Writers Museum.
“Chicago is centrally located and has a very strong literary tradition,” explained O’Hagan. “For me, growing up in Ireland, Chicago sort of represented the real America because so much American history has revolved around Chicago. It’s a gritty, real city and it has an amazing legacy of great writers who have called Chicago home. It is also a destination city rich in culture, making me believe it is the best place for The American Writers Museum.”