Chicago reported population decreases in each of the past two years, and by 2025, Houston is projected to overtake it as the nation’s third-largest city. Yet thanks to last year’s record-setting 54.1 million tourists, Chicago museum attendance continues to thrive; its venerated Art Institute, Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium each saw significant attendance growth last year. The city’s number of cultural institutions is similarly on the rise—this past Wednesday, former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama were in town to disclose design specifics for the Obama Presidential Center, a three-building complex bound for Jackson Park in 2021. But next week, about nine miles up Lake Michigan’s coastline, Obama’s former chief of staff and current mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel will cut the ribbon at the American Writers Museum (AWM).
AWM was founded by an Irish immigrant, the now-septuagenarian engineer Dr. Malcolm O’Hagan, a Washington, D.C., resident who previously served in both the Carter and Reagan administrations. “After visiting the Dublin Writers Museum, I sought out the American counterpart and was surprised to learn that there is no national institution that celebrates the lives of the great American writers,” he said in an interview with Tin House. Instead, the U.S. boasts dozens of hometown museums devoted to individual authors, including the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park, Illinois; the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri; and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library in Indianapolis, Indiana; now AWM-affiliates (along with 62 others).
O’Hagan’s vision was a stateside peer for the country-spanning literary landmarks of Scotland, Germany, China, and Brazil. He began planning said venture in late 2009; Chicago was selected as the museum’s eventual home in May 2011, the same month the Poetry Foundation opened a center with a library and reading spaces in the city’s Near North Side neighborhood, funded with part of a $200 million gift from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly. Chicago’s printing industry dates back to the 1830s, and the South Loop enclave Printers Row was named for the newspapermen, mapmakers, and linotypers who once coalesced there, on railroad-convenient real estate vacated by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Additionally, the humanities-focused Newberry library has been assisting local researchers for 130 years.
Nearly $10 million in private donations was raised to fund O’Hagan’s project (for example, the foundation of Donald Rumsfeld—who served two administrations as secretary of defense—gave somewhere in the $1,000 to $4,999 range), and many book-friendly boldfaced names voiced their support. “I’m thrilled that at the American Writers Museum, Americans can explore the lives, cultures, circumstances, and motivations of writers whose creativity and thoughts sparked our inspiration and action throughout our nation’s history,” said former First Lady (and former librarian) Laura Bush in a videotaped message on the AWM’s website. “Maybe I’m biased, but I think Chicago, home of Bellow, Brooks, and Terkel, is the perfect place for such a museum,” said author and publisher Dave Eggers, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, where the cataclysmic events of his best-selling debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, took place.
AWM now occupies 11,000 square feet on the second floor of a Michigan Avenue office building. An anticipated 120,000 annual visitors will enter underneath rows of color-coordinated hardback books affixed to steel beams. Thirteen permanent exhibitions unfurl throughout six galleries, such as “Visionaries & Troublemakers,” an homage to writers synonymous with Chicago (like Roger Ebert, Lorraine Hansberry, and Mike Royko), plus a “surprise bookshelf,” where context for 100 diverse pieces of writing—from The Feminine Mystique to the Tupac Shakur song “Dear Mama”—is uncovered by spinning neon-lit cubes (the smell of fresh cookies wafts from behind the placard for Mastering the Art of French Cooking). Another exhibition, a 60-foot timeline titled “American Voices,” charts the national history of the written word via late writers, from Spanish explorer álvar Nú?ez Cabeza de Vaca (1490–1559) to The Mambo Kings author Oscar Hijuelos (1951–2013), the first Hispanic person to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
While there are a few opportunities to interact with concrete objects—a display with six fabrics cited in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series; a rope entanglement for children to clip words that describe their best friend, à la Charlotte’s Web—the majority of the museum’s learning happens through touch screens. At the interactive “Build a Routine” station, patrons guess the “fuel,” “habits,” “favorite things,” and “companions” of famed authors (turns out, poet Robert Frost enjoyed nightly daiquiris, and The Talented Mr. Ripley author Patricia Highsmith owned 300 pet snails, even carrying them in her purse as uninvited dinner party guests). Meanwhile, in the children’s gallery, Caldecott Medal–winning author and illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky painted a mural of squirrels in a tree poring over 34 classic children’s books, including Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could and Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round.
Aside from the 120-foot scroll that served as the first complete manuscript for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (on loan through October 27), AWM features no historical literary artifacts, which director of operations Christopher Burrow described to Vogue as “kind of stale,” particularly for social media consumers. “That kind of stuff, it’s just objects. It’s not the inspiration that created the work; it’s not inspiration that’s going to create future works,” he continued (although, last week’s Met Gala attendees might disagree, not to mention Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda—he wrote that show’s signature song, “My Shot,” inside Aaron Burr’s preserved former bedroom in the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a Revolutionary War–era home in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood). “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” a temporary installation also on view until October, invites guests inside artists Susannah Sayler, Edward Morris, and Ian Boyden’s approximation of the Hawaiian garden and shed that belongs to poet W.S. Merwin. Pages of typed verse are interspersed with fern leaves, soil bags, and galoshes, while blank paper and pens are provided for letter-writing. (Merwin converts his correspondence into compost.)
At a press reception on May 8, 10-time author and School of the Art Institute of Chicago adjunct professor Rosellen Brown—whose 1992 novel, Before and After, was adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson—explained why our current political age is the ideal time to honor her colleagues with the AWM. Paraphrasing the author Julius Lester, she said that rather than asking candidates the last book they’ve read, “the question needs to be, ‘Do you read novels? Do you want to enter the mind of someone else?’ ”