CHICAGO, May 9 — Enter the new American Writers Museum, which opens here May 16, 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’re 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,” 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 WS Merwin.
“That was something we really wanted to dispel,” Anway continued. “We want people who come here to have different kinds of experiences around literature.”
Thoreau had his cabin; Emily Dickinson had her bedroom; and now the United States will have 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 square feet of galleries — housed on the second floor of an office building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from top tourist draws like the Art Institute and Millennium Park — might be seen as a convivial shared apartment.
Instead of manuscripts and first editions, there are interactive touch screens and high-tech multimedia installations galore, like 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, like cosy couches 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 (RM43.4 million) in privately raised money, may not own any artefacts. But it does have one on loan for the next six months: the famous 120-foot (36-metre) scroll on which Jack Kerouac banged out On the Road.
It’s a treasure that seems perfectly matched to the museum’s populist, DIY spirit — and not just because it’s 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 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 Malcolm O’Hagan, a retired executive from the Washington, D.C., area. He visited the Dublin Writers Museum on a visit to his native Ireland eight years ago and found himself wondering why there was nothing similar in the United States.
Within months, O’Hagan incorporated a non-profit dedicated to the project. He soon hired 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. O’Hagan also decided not to hire a permanent curator, instead relying on a core “content leadership team” of a half-dozen and around 50 subject experts who advised Anway’s team.
“With a curator, you get that person’s point of view and biases,” O’Hagan 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,” O’Hagan 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 populist approach, and emphasis on literature’s social relevance and “relatability,” might not sit well in literary and academic circles. But Max Rudin, the publisher of the Library of America and a member of the content leadership team, said it fit the US literary tradition itself.
“American literary culture is uniquely democratic and sort of bubbles up from below,” he said. “One of the mysteries of literary creation is that it’s made by men and women who are basically like us. If the museum can create that sense of intimacy and connection, that’s a great thing.”
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 an 85-foot-long wall that tells the chronological story of US writing through 100 significant writers. (The museum is careful not to say “best.”)
Those wanting more can use touch screens to navigate video commentaries on the themes of identity, opportunity and experimentation by the NPR critic Maureen Corrigan and the literary scholars Ilan Stavans and Ivy Wilson. (Anway estimated that the total word count of spoken and written texts in the museum was “the equivalent of three novels” — a lot, he said, for a museum of this size.)
Bored by the parade of greats, or just looking for a quicker hit? That “Surprise Bookshelf” is just opposite, offering short glosses on a democratic jumble of 100 pieces of “memorable writing,” including Tupac Shakur’s Dear Mama,” Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Timex’s “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking” advertising slogan.
The other main gallery, called The Mind of a Writer, offers a more right-brain view, focused on creativity and process. There are large interactive touch-screen tables where visitors can dig more deeply into the history, reception and meaning of 25 “masterworks” in various genres, including The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Harold and the Purple Crayon and Silent Spring.
There’s also 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 like a “do-it-yourself dialogue generator.” A touch-screen 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,” Cranston said.
Visitors have to dig to get past the overall mood of inspirational uplift and moral progress and find knottier currents. Those who skip Corrigan’s video commentary on literary experimentalism, for example, may not realise that Lolita is more than a novel that “hinges on a road trip — a classic American genre — and riffs on motel and teen culture,” as the brief wall text dedicated to Vladimir Nabokov puts it.
And there’s little indication that literature has been the source of passionate contention — including over what literature is for, and which writers belong in a museum like this, anyway.
Anway said he would be “shocked” if the museum’s emphases and exclusions didn’t generate arguments. But it is open to revision, he said, just like US literature itself.
“We aren’t saying this is an encyclopaedic place,” he said. “It will change.” — The New York Times