An everyman museum to celebrate writers

The Surprise Bookshelf (above) at the American Writers Museum includes hidden text, sounds and even smells.
The Surprise Bookshelf (above) at the American Writers Museum includes hidden text, sounds and even smells.PHOTO: NYTIMES

CHICAGO • Enter the new American Writers Museum, which opened here yesterday, and you find yourself standing under a canopy of dead trees, in the form of a rippling, colour-coordinated cloud of books bolted to the ceiling.

But take a sharp right into a small gallery and you are standing in the middle of a small grove of exotic live ones.

"One of the things we got asked a lot when we started was whether the museum was going to be an athenaeum, with leather chairs and lots of oak," Mr Andrew Anway, its lead designer, said, standing near a thicket of potted palms, part of an immersive temporary installation inspired by the nature poetry (and Hawaiian garden) of W.S. Merwin.

"That was something we really wanted to dispel," he continued. "We want people who come here to have different kinds of experiences around literature."

Henry David Thoreau had his cabin; Emily Dickinson had her bedroom; and now the United States has what organisers are saying is the first museum dedicated to the collective accomplishments of the nation's writers.

But rather than a temple to solitary creation, the nearly 11,000 sq ft of galleries - housed on the second floor of an office building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from top tourist draws such as the Art Institute - might be seen as a convivial shared apartment.

Instead of manuscripts and first editions, there are interactive touchscreens and high-tech multimedia installations galore, such as a mesmerising Word Waterfall, in which a wall of densely packed, seemingly random words is revealed, through a constantly looping light projection, to contain resonant literary quotations.

There are also homier touches, such as cosy sofas in the children's literature gallery and even the occasional smell of cookies, unleashed whenever someone pushes the plaque for Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, included in an installation called The Surprise Bookshelf.

The museum, created with nearly US$10 million (S$14.1 million) in privately raised money, may not own any artefacts. But it does have one on loan for the next six months: the famous 36.6m-long scroll on which Jack Kerouac banged out On The Road.

It is a treasure that seems perfectly matched to the museum's populist, DIY spirit - and not just because it is displayed near a table of vintage typewriters, loaded with paper and ready for visitors to use.

"It really illustrates the idea of process, the way that Kerouac taped together tracing paper, cut it and then went nuts," said Mr Carey Cranston, the museum's president. "To be able to physically look down and see the amount of work that went into it is a great way to show what writers actually do."

The museum is the brainchild of Mr Malcolm O'Hagan, a retired executive from the Washington, DC, area. He visited the Dublin Writers Museum on a trip to his native Ireland eight years ago and found himself wondering why there was nothing similar in the US.

Within months, he incorporated a non-profit dedicated to the project. He soon hired Mr Anway, founder of the Boston-based firm Amaze Design, who organised brainstorming sessions with writers, publishers, scholars, teachers and booksellers in various cities. Chicago was ultimately chosen as a location because of its strong tourist traffic and rich literary history, which is explored in a gallery.

One crucial decision was including only dead writers in the permanent exhibitions, leaving living ones to the museum's temporary shows and live events. Mr O'Hagan also decided not to hire a permanent curator, instead relying on a core "content leadership team" of a half-dozen and about 50 subject experts who advised Mr Anway's team.

"With a curator, you get that person's point of view and biases," he said. "We thought a group approach would be better." The museum has 15 employees and an annual operating budget of about US$1.9 million.

And then there was the name, which won out over the more staid Museum of American Literature.

"The word 'literature' has a highbrow feel and we wanted a broader audience," he said. "We debated it back and forth, but ultimately decided the focus on writers was the right one. People are always fascinated by creative people."

The exhibits reflect a kind of push and pull between playful immersion and more traditional instruction. Head from the entrance in one direction into a gallery called A Nation Of Writers and you get what might be called the logical, left- brain approach to literature, anchored by a 26m-long wall that tells the chronological story of US writing through 100 significant writers.

The other main gallery, called The Mind Of A Writer, offers a more right-brain view, focused on creativity and process.

There is a wall featuring quotations about writing from Octavia Butler, Henry Miller and others, and potted writing lessons ("One snappy verb outweighs a pile of adjectives"), illustrated with interactive features such as a "do-it-yourself dialogue generator". A touchscreen grid lets you match your habits - do you prefer brownies or daiquiris as fuel? Writing in hotels or in the open air? - to those of the greats.

"The idea is to inspire people to do their own writing," Mr Cranston said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2017, with the headline 'An everyman museum to celebrate writers'. Print Edition | Subscribe