Educate, engage, enrich, motivate, inspire
Feature photo: Entrance to the American Writers Museum at 180 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois
By Karen Rodriguez
“A love of words is at the heart of all great writing. The right word in the right place can be beautiful, evocative, terrifying, funny, or revelatory.” From a sign called Wordplay on the wall of the American Writers Museum.
On the second floor of 180 North Michigan Avenue, a block from the Chicago River and Millennium Park on the city’s Cultural Mile, Chicago’s newest museum draws visitors young and old. Opened in May 2017, interactive displays feature the work of American authors across a broad spectrum of genres and across the whole of American history. According to Umberto Tosi, for this museum, “Writing is broadly defined to include nonfiction (Susan Sontag, John Muir), songwriting (e.g. Bob Dylan) even comics (e.g. Charles Shultz), with emphasis on literary greats and those whose words moved America the most—for example, Dr. Martin Luther King.” The word “writer”, then, is inclusive and not limited to literature.
The museum’s mission: “To engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.” Irish engineer and scientist Malcolm O’Hagan came up with the idea for the American Writers Museum after seeing the Dublin Writers Museum. It took eight years, more than $10 million, and many people debating design and content to create the 11,000 square foot Chicago-based museum.
A staff of 10 manages the museum and 48 subject matter experts from universities across the country give advice to staff and the Museum board. A National Advisory Council includes poets, fiction and non-fiction writers, essayists, children’s writers, cartoonists, biographers, historians, memoirists, literary critics, educators, journalists, editors, and publishers. Among Council members are numerous award winners from across the United States including:
- United States Poet Laureates (Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Juan Felipe Herrera, Natasha Trethewey)
- National Book Award winners (A. Scott Berg, Louise Erdrich, Alice McDermott)
- Pulitzer Prize winners (A. Scott Berg, Rita Dove, Jennifer Egan, Marilynne Robinson, Natasha Trethewey, Viet Thanh Nguyen)
- Newbery Medal Winners (Kwame Alexander)
- Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient (Isabel Allende)
- Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction winner (Marilynne Robinson)
- Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature winners (Lisa See, Viet Thanh Nguyen)
One can wander through the museum and just read the signage or one can experience the museum through interactive exhibits. The multi-media presentation near the entrance traces the history of American writing from colonial times to the present. The exhibit in the main hall is called American Voices. The lengthy room contains the photos of 100 writers, their photos, a brief description of their work, and samples of their writing displayed below a timeline from 1492 to present day. Questions with hidden answers about each writer involve the viewer.
The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame displays banners of several dozen Chicago writers including Nelson Algren, Jane Addams, Studs Terkel and Roger Ebert. Ebert, a film critic and journalist for the Chicago Sun Times, was added after he died several years ago.
Several tabletop electronic word games encourage exploration of the works of individual authors as well as allow visitors to compose brief poems. One room is filled with lounge chairs and real books, a quiet reading space. The children’s room, with its whimsical mural, is filled with children’s literature. And the Mind of a Writer space contains old fashioned typewriters where visitors can type a story and add it to the Story of the Day wall.
Finally, a Word Waterfall contains quotes and sentence fragments that make little sense if read line by line. Instead, quotes light up and background words become part of a moving image. The photo above, for example, shows Kurt Vonnegut’s quote about book burning:
“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians…who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves…
So the America I love still exists…if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.” Kurt Vonnegut
Word-white flames below the quote dance across the darkened words on the wall creating the waterfall effect. An important one-of-a-kind museum, the American Writers Museum, in their words, educates, engages, enriches, motivates, and inspires.
McFadyen-Ketchum, Andrew. The American Writers Museum. News and Trends. September/October 2017.
Tosi, Umberto. Day at the American Writers Museum. Authors Electric. September 3, 2017.
Content and photos ©2018 Karen Rodriguez