Day at the American Writers Museum - Umberto Tosi

UT ponders process at AWM
Six years in Chicago and I no longer feel like a tourist. Still, I like it when visitors come and give me an excuse to rubberneck the Windy City's attractions. I doubt this will wear off. I lived in San Francisco for 30 years and never tired of taking friends and family around, always discovering something new.

I was ready for another round this July when my eldest daughter, Alicia and her husband Brian paid my inamorata Eleanor and I a visit, as they do from time to time. They were on their way home to Mexico City, where they run American and English literature programs at an international school, having done that sort of thing on four continents. They had just spent fortnight in Ireland visiting Brian's mother.

Right off, Brian, an author and musician as well, announced in his lyrical Irish brogue: "I must see your Writers' Museum."

"Writers' museum?" I hesitated. "I didn't know we had one." In fact I didn't know there was such a thing.

"Oh, yes. Right here." He had heard about it in Ireland. He pointed to a display on his smart-phone: The American Writers' Museum on bustling North Michigan Avenue, blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago, Grant Park and the Chicago Cultural Center.Turns out it's the only museum in the country dedicated to American writers, rather than the many that celebrate individual authors, usually at their respective home towns.

Alicia and Brian try out the vintage typewriters
I was somewhat embarrassed. Here I was four years an editor of Chicago Quarterly Review, not to mention a wizened scribe, and I'd never heard of the writer's museum - and in Chicago, the under-sung city of big shoulders, iconic novelists, playwrights, muckrakers, of world class museums, a town buzzing with poetry slams, book fairs, stage shows, literary and art events year round.

"Let's have a look," I offered. "But what's a writers museum, anyway -  a library? How do you display writing - adapting for theatre maybe - but in otherwise...? A Madame Tussuad's of writers?"

I felt like a wax dummy when we toured the AWM the next day. Seems I'd been limiting my imagination. The place turned out to be a delight - crammed with interactive displays rendering insightful surprises that involved us from the moment we stepped from an elevator into its 11,000 square foot second-floor office building space into its own special world.

A multicoloured tree sculpted entirely from books greeted us from overhead as we entered - a clever bit of environmentally flipped irony in an age when not all writing is on paper in the 21st century. 

I time travel with American writers
With a wave at the friendly gift shop greeters, we spread out in all directions and went into other-worldly museum trance drawn in by an inspired use of the museum's comparatively modest space laid out by Boston's Amaze Design, I was to find out.

Hours whizzed by timelessly as we explored AWM's galleries and wall displays and galleries - a dozen or so, depending on how you count - each a play space (in the best sense) of visitor-engaging content-rich touch screens and physical items. Unlike museums of old, practically none of the hundreds of displays is strictly for looking. Everything there is for touching, experimenting and experiencing.

A long, writers gallery, labelled "American Voices" displayed striking images, interactive blurbs and quotations of a hundred word masters, arranged chronologically from the 16th to the 21st centuries. It's a people's - not a scholar's museum, firmly grounded in sophisticated insightful lore.

The choice of writers is unselfconsciously and richly gender and ethnically diverse, with a historical narrative line contextualising it all. The choices of authors are broadly defined by cultural significance rather than literary academic - gender and ethnically inclusive and enriched. Writing is broadly defined to include nonfiction (Susan Sontag, John Muir), songwriting (e.g. Bob Dylan) even comics (e.g. Charles Shultz), with emphasis on literary greats and those whose words moved America the most - for example, Dr. Martin Luther King.

AWM's Children's room
Other spaces and touch-screen tables engaged us in touch screen word play matching quotes with authors, for example -- a Readers Hall and the Children's Gallery featuring excerpts from Charlotte's Web. the Cat in the Hat, Frank Baum's Oz books and poetry by Langston Hughes. One wall has game-show-like electronic boxes you flip revealing visual, verbal and auditory treats relating to famous works - e.g. a clip of burning books from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The "Mind of the Writer" space explores process, for example, a so-true quotation from Octavia Butler about first drafts being "crap" we think is good. painstakingly up-written into what we hope is worth reading. A spectacular electronic Word Waterfall creates the illusion of cascading bunches of words that precipitate into passages from various masterpieces.

Fittingly, AWM offers a display on the literary giants of Chicago. A bannered display includes Jane Addams, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros, Lorraine Hansberry - et al, to Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Richard Wright and the late Roger Ebert.

Dublin Writers Museum
Like most other visitors that day, none of us could resist sitting at the writer's table stocked with working vintage typewriters and plenty of paper. People typed laboriously for a while and pinned samples on a nearby cork board. Memories flooded back as I pecked away at an old Royal desk machine similar to the big Underwood I used to write my first three published books.

Next to this was a special display of the original continuous roll of paper Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road. It reminded me of how I used to purloin thick rolls of teletype machine paper from the newspaper where I worked and use them to draft my own books at the time, correcting and rewriting as I went along, the cutting and pasting a final draft (literally) to be finally type cleanly into a submittable manuscript. That was my practice until 1981 when I got my first primitive Radio Shack computer-word-processor. How did we do it? I wondered.

The AWM experience isn't educational in the scholarly sense, nor does it impart techniques to budding writers, but it does raise enthusiasm for writing in an intimate setting that connects writing to our lives in relevant way - writing as organic to life rather than as the usual solitary pursuit it is portrayed to be. A misty installation of potted palms inspired by the poetry of W. S. Merwin seemed to characterize the immersive quality of the entire museum.

"If I taught classes here, I would make this a field trip every semester," my son-in-law remarked as we finished our tour.

My embarrassment at not knowing about this downtown gem was alleviated when I learned that AWM had only opened its doors six weeks earlier, with an invites-only ceremony presided over by Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. I did recall seeing notices in the local paper vaguely, then, but my eyes had glazed over. It took my son-in-law from Ireland and my daughter to get me there, however, and glad of it.

I got to converse with AWM's founder Malcolm O'Hagan a few days later by phone. O'Hagan, an engineer and trade organization executive who resides in the Washington D.C. area, spent seven years making his dream of this museum come true, including raising the $10 million it cost to build and start it up. O'Hagan was inspired originally by a visit to the Dublin Writers Museum twelve ago on one of his trips to Ireland where he was born (in Limerick). Unlike AWM, the Dublin museum, which opened in 1991 is more of a scholarly repository of original manuscripts and writing artifacts.

Lisa Wagner, Dipika Mukherjee,Sonal Shulka, Samantha Hoffman

"We wanted something with the common touch," he said, "for an audience of general reader, not high brow or for the literary elite." O'Hagan brainstormed with museum experts for years and presented ideas to successful museum curators all around the country, as diverse as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He settled on Chicago because of it's being a central hub famous for its museums as well as a writing and cultural Mecca over the years.

The AWM has garnered rave notices in major media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Guardian and high online ratings as well. Fodors ranked AWM No. 1 on its list of the world's ten best new museums. USA Today named it best of its top ten Readers Choice attractions in Illinois. "Where are the books?" A favourable Washington Post review teased, implying that it didn't much matter in this den of interactivity.

Though there are few actual books, the AWM aims to become a center for Chicago's living writers and book lovers from everywhere, from the looks of AWM's lively events program giving Chicago writers, publishers and nonprofits a platform. I attended one lively event a few weeks after my initial visit. It starred one of our own Authors Electric writers, Dipika Mukherjee. She led a discussion about writers, culture and social activism with AWM Assistant Program Director Sonal Shulka, and fellow Chicago authors Lisa Wagner, executive director of Chicago's Guild Literary Complex, and Samantha Hoffman, author of What More Could You Ask For? Both read from Ms. Mukherjee's latest novel, Shambala Junction, a thriller that explores the issues of black market adoptions and human trafficking.

Chicago poet Chuck Kramer, who also attended the event, and I set the wheels in motion to hold one of our regular Chicago Quarterly Review events there in the spring. Stay tuned.

Looks like the American Writers Museum is off to a great start more than a just a museum - rather what an arts center should be - a living part of this storied writers town's dynamic creative life. Time will tell how well this all works, but chapter one has me hooked. Not bad for a modest $12 US admission price.
The American Writers Museum is located at 180 North Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL,60601 Phone: 312.374.8790. 

Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s and aughts. He was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s and 70s, He has been editor of San Francisco  and other regional publications. He has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He has four grown children, nine  and three great-grandchildren. He resides in Chicago and is partnered with noted Chicago narrative imagist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.


Chris Longmuir said…
Fantastic post, Umberto. I'm intrigued by the museum and wish I had been there to accompany you on your tour. It sounds like a fascinating place.
Lynne Garner said…
Umberto - what a great post. I didn't even know these types of museums existed - I'm off to find out if I have one local.
Marsha CoupĂ© said…
Having visited the Writer's Museum in Dublin, thrilled to read about this fitting tribute in Chicago. Libraries, the original writer's museum, might take inspiration from this and enhance their offerings with some of the ideas you share.
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Umberto, and yet another reason to visit Chicago one of these days. It's a promise I've been making myself for years. I like the fact that they seem to have interpreted the notion of a dedicated museum in such an imaginative, wide-ranging way. It's also good to be reminded, in these vulgar, philistine days, of the richness of America's literary culture. Thank you.
Alicia Sammons said…
Your informative and entertaining review captures the spirit of this wonderful place. A great day out for whose who write and those who love to read. It's an exceptional museum to bring students.
What a fabulous post Umberto! Thank you for shining your light on this wonderful museum and giving Shambala Junction some space within this blogpost. I really hope the Chicago Quarterly Review reading will happen soon -- the museum is a lovely, energizing space for all writers.

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