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WISCH LIST: Chicago's American Writers Museum is write on point

Dave Wischnowsky
Dave Wischnowsky

In the fall of 2016, while on a visit to Ireland, my wife and I spent a delightful afternoon touring the Dublin Writers Museum, which celebrates the tiny nation’s outsized number of legendary wordsmiths, ranging from Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde to Jonathan Swift and James Joyce to many more.

At the time, I wondered why there wasn’t a similar museum in America. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one.

Nine years ago, when Irish-born literature enthusiast Malcolm O’Hagan returned to his home in Washington, D.C., following one of his many visits to the Dublin Writers Museum, he was looking forward to comparing it to a similar museum in the United States.

But he was shocked to find he couldn’t, because that museum didn’t exist.

O’Hagan couldn’t comprehend how a nation with such a rich literary tradition had no institution to pay homage to the achievements of its greatest writers. (I know the feeling.) But instead of simply griping about it, O’Hagan instead gripped an opportunity. The retired manufacturing executive formed a nonprofit group dedicated to creating a U.S. museum honoring the written word and embarked upon his newfound mission. Last May, his dream became a reality when the American Writers Museum opened at 150 N. Michigan Ave. on the second floor of an office building across the street from Millennium Park.

Earlier this month, my wife and I visited the American Writers Museum, and were surprised with the depth of its ambition and the interactivity of its exhibits. There was so much to read, see and experience that another visit will be required to take it all in — perhaps multiple visits.

The museum features 13 permanent exhibits in six galleries, with each designed to explore the influences writers on our nation’s history, culture and identity. The genres covered range from fiction and nonfiction to sportswriting, cooking, children’s literature and plays.

You’ll find a touchscreen showing famous authors born in every state (Illinois’ haul includes Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler and Carl Sandburg) and a digitized “Word Waterfall” display. You’ll find a Children’s Literature Gallery with illustrated wall hangings celebrating “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” And you’ll find a digital wordplay game that challenges you to fill in the blanks from passages in famous literature.

You’ll find an American Voices display that shares interesting details about obscure writers, such as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a 16th-century Spanish explorer who was part of a doomed expedition that left him stranded off the coast of what is now Florida, as well as household names such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Steinbeck.

And, of course, being a Chicago museum, you’ll find writers who worked in the Windy City have their own gallery. “Chicago Writers: Visionaries and Troublemakers” celebrates the likes of newspaper columnist Mike Royko, novelist Nelson Algren, playwright Ben Hecht and even improv comedian Del Close.

What you won’t find inside the American Writers Museum are many books, as the space isn’t intended to be dedicated to artifacts or dusty manuscripts, but more about the ideas that drove the words from our nation’s greatest writers.

However, if you’re looking for something more tangible, there is a slew of typewriters visitors can clack away upon. So, you could write your own book.

The American Writers Museum closes at 5 p.m. most days, and 6 p.m. on Thursdays, but also offers a wide array of after-hours screenings, workshops and events. Admission is $12 for adults ($8 with a student ID). For more information, visit americanwritersmuseum.org.

DAVE WISCHNOWSKY can be reached by email at wischlist@gmail.com, or follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/wischlist, on Twitter at twitter.com/wischlist or his blog, wischlist.com.

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