An American Writers Museum could be a dry, uninviting place, like a novel left so long on the shelf that its cover is dusty, its pages brittle.
The new Chicago institution bearing that name — and the only one of its kind in the nation, its makers say — is more like something hot off the presses and eager to be read.
Despite a modest size in its location on the second floor of a vintage building at 180 N. Michigan Ave., the museum manages to feel ambitious, far-reaching and wise in its appreciation of writers and writing. And while its necessarily incomplete survey of American writers stretches back to the likes of the early 18th-century preacher Cotton Mather, there's enough innovation in the presentation, including well-thought-out uses of digital technology, that dust doesn't seem to be a threat.
The museum opened its doors Monday for a media preview in advance of the public debut May 16. Displaying not just the dead wood of book pages but live plants in an imaginative temporary exhibition on the poet (and horticulturist) W.S. Merwin, its 11,000 square feet will further establish the area along Michigan Avenue south of the Chicago River as a cultural playground.
Indeed, civic promoters label it Chicago's Cultural Mile. The Art Institute, Chicago Cultural Center and Millennium Park anchor the concept; the Pritzker Military Museum is a relatively recent arrival, and an ambitious, for-profit Chicago blues museum is in the offing.
The writers museum was the brainchild, eight years ago, of one Malcolm O'Hagan, a retired Irish manufacturing executive from Chevy Chase, Md., who loves language and literature and was inspired by the absence of an American counterpart to an Irish writers museum he visited in Dublin. He set it up and recruited a board that has been able to raise nearly $10 million to start the museum.
"My Irish eyes are smiling, I'll tell you that," O'Hagan said Monday, seated in front of one of two touch-screen word play tables, where visitors can fill in the blanks in famous literature or play a version of the word-magnet composition game more commonly found on refrigerators.
"There's so much content," he added. "It's a small museum, but you could spend days here."
Or at least the better part of one day. Overhead at the entrance, in a splendid design fillip, branches of a tree are comprised of rows of hard-copy books; it takes the oft-derided idea of using books as decoration to a delightful extreme.
On either side of the admission desk ($12 adults) are rows of free bookmarks promoting dozens of single-author museums around the U.S., most of them located in a home that writer occupied. Before the American Writers Museum, they were the way the nation enshrined its authors in a physical space. Now they are signed on as affiliates.
Off of the entrance is a vibrant kids-lit room, with couches for reading and homages to works such as "Charlotte's Web" and the poetry of Langston Hughes. And there are, of course, stocked bookshelves. Boston's Amaze Design, which designed the galleries, never forgets that reading is central to the enterprise.
A short video introduces the museum's concept and offerings: On a U.S. map, writers who are in the museum rise up out of their hometowns in little circles, the typing sound in the background giving the whole thing the air of popcorn popping.
And then comes the Writers Hall, a content-rich and visually dramatic display of 100 American authors on one wall, 100 American works on the other. The authors tend to be more iconic, the works more eclectic. And there's plenty to engage with by turning the small display boards on either side. The one for O'Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," for instance, reveals a pocket watch and a comb, the key elements of that darkly ironic classic story. Read one of Charles M. Schulz's ever-resonant, "psychologically complex" "Peanuts" cartoons. Or turn the board for Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" and hear that quintessential American tune. (Songwriting counts as writing here, too, as does nonfiction, poetry and so on, but the bias is toward fiction.)
You can quibble with the 100 dead authors chosen, of course, and you probably should (later, there's a place to register your own favorite books and authors). Instead of a single head curator, the museum enlisted dozens of experts in fashioning its content, and, throughout, due attention is paid to female authors and writers of color.
For the author wall, labeled "American Voices," first on the list is early 16th century Spanish memoirist Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who walked from Florida across what would become the southern U.S. and wrote about it; last, by date of death, is "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" novelist Oscar Hijuelos. In between is an American lit survey that would need all four years of college to be taught well. Meanwhile, on video screens, critics spotlight selected works by themes such as edginess and identity.
The printed entries on each writer are brief, sometimes to a fault, but so it must be when you sum up a life in a couple of paragraphs. The talent of T.S. Eliot is mentioned, for instance, but his conversion to English citizenship (which would seem relevant in this context) becomes "who spent much of his life in England."
At the end of the hall lies a hypnotic video installation, dubbed the "Word Waterfall," that spotlights quotations on the theme of what American means amid a backdrop of seemingly dense text.
Other major galleries treat reading — with books to read and a place to sit and read them amid wall signs on topics such as bookstore and paperback history — and the craft of writing. Soak in the advice on the wall about specificity and strong verb choices, and then sit there and bang out a short story on the supplied vintage typewriters. Or just learn which writer liked cheese, which one fed pigeons.
A substantial Chicago writers gallery pays tribute to the city the museum chose as its location because, O'Hagan says, of its central location and its literary tradition. Covered is a selection of scribes from Jane Addams to Gwendolyn Brooks to Mike Royko. Roger Ebert makes the cut, as well.
And then there are the introductory temporary exhibits, which bode well for an institution that also aims to maintain a vibrant schedule of live events: readings, film screenings, etc. The Merwin exhibit, fashioned by artists Susannah Sayler, Edward Morris and Ian Boyden, scatters poems in a greenhouse setting, homage to the writer's passion for growing, in particular, palm trees.
The other one highlights Jack Kerouac's influential beat novel "On the Road," starring the scroll that was the writer's first draft, an extraordinary artifact. Kerouac taped paper together and trimmed it so that he could type continuously and his sentences could run long past ordinary stopping points and perhaps not even contain paragraphs and deliver some of the mad rush of feeling that carried him back and forth across America in a search for meaning and experience that did not include a visit to the second floor of an aged Chicago building to learn about the writers who had preceded him but might have had it come many decades later.
Sitting amid all of it Monday, O'Hagan, now 77, pronounced himself well satisfied and eager to see the museum make its next step, from 39,000 e-mails in his museum account to an actual thing out in the world.
"I hope it'll inspire young people to read and to write," he said.
Note: This story, posted May 10, is a more detailed version of the article that was originally posted.
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