The American Writers Museum celebrates writers and inspires people to engage in reading and writing through innovative and interactive exhibits.
Visitors look at a timeline display that celebrates authors emblematic of “American Voices,” from the early Native American oral traditions up to the 20th century. Photograph courtesy American Writers Museum
Readers take note. There is a museum where the written word is revered and celebrated, right in the heart of the United States. The American Writers Museum (AWM) in Chicago, Illinois, opened its doors two years ago, with a mission to educate, engage and inspire people through the works of American writers.
With a nod to single-author museums dotting the United States, mostly located in a home the writer occupied, the American Writers Museum finally gives the country’s great writers, spanning more than five centuries, a place to call home. It is located on Chicago Cultural Mile, aptly named for the neighboring Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center and Millennium Park. Museum President Carey Cranston proudly points to its placement on top of the list of the world’s best museums by travel and tourism publisher Fodor as well as its rating by USA Today’s readers as one of the best attractions in Illinois. “We are thrilled at the passionate belief by our visitors and supporters who voted to rank the American Writers Museum number one amongst them all,” he says.
This one-of-a-kind museum’s Stead Family Foundation Writers Hall has rows of multi-hued books suspended like tree branches from the ceiling, depicting great cover art. A U.S. map wall represents the writers in the museum, spiraling in small circles from their hometowns to a staccato “popping popcorn” typewriter background sound. And those who immerse themselves in the shiny, sheer intersecting walls of the large projected “Word Waterfall,” find their faces and torsos covered with the white-on-black quotations addressing the theme of what the word “American” means.
“We are so fortunate to have this rare gem here in Chicago,” says a local patron of the museum. “My kids and I spent hours reading about the writers and playing with words, accepting invitations to play games that ranged from a vintage typewriter station to touchscreen writing games.” She highlights the museum’s lasting influence: “The museum inspired my crew to stretch their writing muscles, both at the museum and at home. Great writing comes across as effortless, but it is not. The writers featured here at the museum spent years honing their craft—practicing, practicing, practicing.”
Engaging in the craft of writing is the focus of the American Writers Museum’s flagship Write In youth education program for middle and high school students. This in-museum program combines a field trip with specially designed curriculum utilizing the exhibits and featured authors to encourage young people to write with creativity and confidence. A participating student felt “amazed by the process of writing…I appreciated the opportunity to make a mistake, revise my writing and continue to create something new.”
Other visitors get to create, too. The museum has an interactive station that allows them to create their own string of words and meanings. The museum staff members begin with a single sentence and visitors add to it to form a collective story. This helps engage writers and encourage their craft.
The “Word Waterfall,” a light-driven art installation at the American Writers Museum, cycles through a display of literary history, with quotes from authors. Photograph courtesy Rickshaw Photo, Inc.
The museum embraces all forms of writing: from fiction, poetry, lyrics and drama to nonfiction, speeches and journalistic pieces. “The decision was made that there wasn’t going to be a distinction here; that we were just going to celebrate writers,” says Cranston. “That’s going to include fiction and nonfiction. And as soon as you do that, you have to include journalists because they’re the backbone of who we are as a nation as far as the written word goes.”
Equally comprehensive is the museum’s outreach to all ages and audiences. It organizes programs and events by renowned authors, poets, historians, screenwriters and professors for preschool children, parents, students, adults and seniors from the greater community, including aspiring writers in family homeless shelters.
The museum offers a full calendar of special exhibits and presentations, including Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, reading from her children’s books; “Bob Dylan: Electric,” showcasing Dylan’s writings between the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and his 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature; and the Frederick Douglass Agitator special exhibit, featuring his 1845 memoir “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” The museum’s current exhibit, “Tools of the Trade,” features typewriters used by iconic American authors, poets, screenwriters, playwrights and journalists, and would run through June 2020.
Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.