Chicago to house American Writers Museum

Rendering of musuem design.
Rendering of musuem design. Via
Rendering of musuem design.
Rendering of musuem design. Via

Chicago to house American Writers Museum

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The museum will include interactive displays and constantly changing exhibits, including an exhibit celebrating Chicago’s rich literary heritage.  (Courtesy of the American Writers Museum)

At first glance, the authors Dr. Seuss and Kurt Vonnegut don’t seem to have much in common.

But soon, these two American writers and others like them will be on display at the American Writers Museum, the city’s newest cultural institution on the Magnificent Mile.

“People are fascinated by writers,” museum founder Malcolm O’Hagan said. “They want to see the people, they want to meet them, they want to understand how they do what they do.”

The interactive museum, which has been in the works for a few years, is expected to open its doors at 180 North Michigan Avenue in March of 2017.

“It’s especially significant that this institution is located in Chicago — home over the decades for so many great writers,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said. 

Several famous authors like Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg and Ernest Hemingway, have connections to the city. In addition to Hemingway’s house located in Oak Park, the museum says it’s collaborating with 50 authors’ homes and museums around the U.S.

Alderman Ed Burke, an author himself, who has supported the effort for the last five years, estimates the museum will draw 120,000 visitors a year — a number O’Hagan says is a “conservative” estimate. 

So, where did the idea come from?

“Well I’m Irish,” O’Hagan said. “There’s a great writers museum in Dublin. One time when I came back and I wondered where the American counterpart is, and I was astounded to find out it didn’t exist. So then I started thinking, well, maybe it should.” 

O’Hagan said he hopes the museum will appeal not only to bookworms, but all readers.

“We have to be careful not to appeal just to the academics,” O’Hagan said, “We don’t want to be too high-brow or too low-brow because we want this to have broad appeal.”

He added because there’s such a long list of American writers and a limited amount of space, the museum will be constantly changing exhibits. 

“One of the challenges and one of the exciting things we have to deal with is the fact that we have such a richness in terms of the number of writers we could profile and present,” O’Hagan said.

Andy Anway with Amaze Design is creating the museum exhibits. He says the designers have to figure out how to make a writing museum relevant in a digital world.

“Most people think immediately of a library setting or something that’s much more cerebral than you think of typically with a museum exhibition,” Anway said. “So one of the things we’ve been really working on is trying to figure out a way to both present writing in a way that gets at the intimacy … which very much relates to your personal experience and reading, and also expresses the larger story about both individual authors and the context of writing.” 

For example, one of the interactive exhibits will be called, “Are you a Bukowski or Vonnegut?” in which visitors take a quiz to learn what writers they align with. 

Visitors will also be able to create their own stories after learning the writing techniques that make a “master work.”

The museum will include new media, newly emerging authors, author readings and educational programs. 

The museum will be privately funded by donors. It also received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Chicago Community Trust. Museum officials say there’s still about $5 million left to raise to reach their goal.

Meredith Francis is a WBEZ news intern. Follower her @MMLFrancis