By Rachel Popa
The American Writers Museum joined the myriad of Chicago museums last spring. Unlike the other mainstay museums in Chicago like the Field Museum or the Art Institute, the American Writers Museum is located within another building at 180 N. Michigan Ave – and therein lies the problem.
The American Writers Museum as a concept is wonderful – but the execution of the museum is lacking. It was inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum, which unlike the American Writers Museum contains actual artifacts like first editions of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Although, when I visited, there was an exhibit dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic “Little House on the Prairie” series, which contained an original handwritten manuscript. One of the star attractions of the museum (or so I thought) was Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot roll of paper that “On the Road” was written on. Alas, the scroll was only on exhibited there temporarily and a photo of the scroll took its place. As for tangible pieces of American literature history, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s manuscript was it.
The American Writers Museum is less of a museum and more of an exhibition of American authors. Upon arriving to the museum (after taking the elevator to the suite on the second floor), the first thing visitors see on the right is a display of famous books and written works penned by American authors titled the “surprise bookshelf.” Think “The Great Gatsby,” Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and even Julia Child’s “The Art of French Cooking.” Each title and author of each piece of famous literature is printed on a lighted box that looks like a book. On each side of the lighted boxes there is either a picture of the author, a quote from the book with a voice reciting it, or in the case of “The Art of French Cooking,” the smell of chocolate chip cookies emanates as the visitor reads about the book.
The museum is quite interactive, which I enjoyed. They had a collection of vintage typewriters that visitors could use to create their own pieces of writing by responding to a daily prompt. Before I visited the museum, I had never used a typewriter before, so it took me a couple tries to type my piece correctly. Visitors could also take “quizzes” to see how their writing styles and habits compare to famous writers. Many of the exhibits were educational, so if visitors are curious about the process of le mot juste, for example, they can study how writers choose certain adverbs and adjectives to construct engaging sentences. One of the examples the museum gave was the emphatic phrase “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly go where no man has gone before” from “Star Trek.” The museum highlighted the diversity of American writers, from Prince to Octavia Butler, television to music, instead of sticking to the stuffy and tired literary “canon.”
While many museums ask their readers to read quite a bit, much of the American Writers Museum is akin to if an anthology of American literature was turned into an exhibit. For example, the part of the museum that’s dedicated to famous Chicago writers is just information about the authors printed on tarp-like banners that hang from the ceiling – all of which is tucked into a corner in the back of the museum. If you have even a basic grasp of the history of American literature, this museum isn’t going to tell you anything new.
That being said, as an English major and a writer, I think the American Writers Museum is something that deserves to exist. Chicago has such a rich literary history, it makes sense that the American Writers Museum was established here. The accomplishments of writers such as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Harper Lee deserve to be showcased in a museum. Additionally, The American Writers Museum frequently hosts visiting writers, and has rotating exhibits, which ensures that there will always be something new each time you visit.