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A visit to the American Writers Museum, Chicago, USA

posted on 20 Aug 2017

A visit to the American Writers Museum, Chicago, USA

Take a walk south down North Michigan Avenue and you’d be forgiven if you drifted straight past the newly opened American Writers Museum. There are no posters, no flags, no shop front and in amongst the bustle of people heading towards Millennium Park you can easily see number 180 as an ordinary, rather dull building – unless you look up and see the name of the museum etched on the second floor window. To be fair it’s only been open since May of this year and as a tourist attraction it hasn’t found its way into the visitor brochures or the tourist information centres and, combined with the fact that you have to go up onto the second floor to find the entrance, it’s perhaps understandable that the place isn’t exactly buzzing with activity.

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But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a steady stream of people finding their way in and, take my word for it, it’s well worth the effort. The Museum is dedicated to America’s greatest writers and they are very strict about the fact that you have to be dead to be represented. There’s a fabulous timeline that not only locates these lives in their literary age but also in their social and cultural milieu. The timeline is cunningly constructed because space is limited and there’s so much information to convey. Innovation is the hallmark with a whole range of rotating panels, pull-out and pull-up plaques and some expert editorials that condense relevant information superbly.

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We were also delighted to find a dedicated room given over entirely to children’s literature and children’s writers. Rather than including them in with the adult novelists, children’s authors are treated as a specialism and, of course, are also represented by the great illustrators and illustrations.

There are some other specialist feature rooms which will rotate their displays – Kerouac’s On The Road was the focus of the exhibition when we called but the possibilities are clearly endless. It’s worth saying that the key feature of this museum is information and books rather than artefacts – you won’t see Hemingway’s fishing rods or Fitzgerald’s cocktail glass here. I think this is a great decision and keeps the visitor’s attention on the writers output rather than gee-gaws associated with their life.

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The museum is a great example of how technology can be used to help increase your appreciation of the printed book. You can vote for your five greatest American novels/novelists and get an email sent to you which contains a customised bookmark of your choices. There are also interactive exploration tables that allow you to dig deeper into books or authors and I could have spent hours going down layer by layer and unwrapping the information. The museum lists not only the funders of this project but the fantastic roster of academics who have written the content – the quality of the information really is impeccable.

A digital table also lets you build stories but if you’re not happy with technology, there are tables of typewriters for you to start your own magnum opus.

The floor space of this museum isn’t huge but it’s very well used and they’ve kept a central auditorium space which can be used for talks and events. I can imagine that if we return in a few years time the place will have matured and expanded – these are still early days but I’d say that it’s off to a flying start.

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I’d like to think that this place could be a template for something similar in the UK – we really need a place that pulls together the greatness and brilliance of British authors and this offers a real model for doing that.

Could someone out there please get on with it!

 

Terry Potter

August 2017