By Klaudia Zychowska
The American Writers Museum, which opened in May 2017, is a fairly new Chicago attraction, but it’s already significantly popular with the city’s residents and tourists. Conveniently located on North Michigan Avenue, a short walk from the Clark/Lake station, it is an ideal way to spend an afternoon. The variety of mesmerizing and interactive exhibits allows everyone to find something for themselves, and to explore literary history in a total sensory experience, from sound and touch, to even smell. Visitors are bound to leave inspired.
The museum features permanent and temporary exhibits that focus on prominent writers of the past and present and includes writers from Chicago as well as from the entire nation. American Voices and Surprise Bookshelf are two permanent exhibits that run parallel to each other. American Voices is a collection of 100 writers who shaped literature in America, presented in the form of a timeline. Visitors can stop and learn about each writer as well as about different literary periods in American history. Surprise Bookshelf is a wall of various works which range from playwrights to novels, with an emphasis that writing can come in many forms. Upon opening each lit up door, the visitor is surprised with the contents, some of which are excerpts, videos, photos, and even smells and sounds. Owen Wister’s western, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains features an excerpt and the smell of smoke, while the box with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has a famous quotation and the sound of mockingbirds.
Word Waterfall is one of the most eye-catching exhibits in the museum. Located in a corner by American Voices and Surprise Bookshelf, it is a visual masterpiece. The wall, composed entirely of words, lights up certain words and passages to create an image or present a quote to the audience. The focus of this exhibit is the subject of American-ness and what being an American means, so the quotes shown are about freedom and liberty from writers such as Langston Hughes and Kurt Vonnegut. Looking at the movements is an enchanting experience, and there are three red bean bags placed in front of the wall, so visitors can sit down and get immersed in the visuals playing out in front of them.
The museum prides itself on having exhibits that are interactive so that visitors can have a fun and unforgettable experience. These include touchscreen games on which players can fill in the blanks on famous poems and large touch tables which allow for an in-depth exploration of American masterpieces, as well as a screen on which visitors can discover what they have in common with famous writers, such as their favorite time to write. However, the most popular interactive exhibit is the Writer’s Room. After walking around and getting inspired, visitors can sit down and write something of their own on paper, a laptop, or a vintage typewriter, which is a favorite among visitors of all ages. Younger visitors can experience what it was like to type back in the day, and older visitors get the chance to reminisce. Visitors can keep what they have written, or they can leave their work so it can be hung up on a wall with works other visitors had left. There is even a vintage edition of a book about the history of typewriters at the station, which visitors can flip through and read.
There are currently two temporary exhibits at the museum, Frederick Douglass: Agitator and Bob Dylan: Electric. Frederick Douglass: Agitator is tucked into a corner by the Writer’s Room. It features photos of Frederick Douglass, as well as excerpts of his powerful and inspiring speeches and writings. Bob Dylan: Electric is presented in the form of a passage that visitors can walk through, admiring various parts of the exhibit on their left and right. Videos of Bob Dylan, his guitar, signed photographs, the Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 2016, and the original manuscript of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from 1965 are only some of the exhibit’s magnificent highlights. It is a must-see for Bob Dylan fans.
When visitors are feeling overwhelmed, they can visit the Reader’s Hall, a place where they can sit on comfortable couches and read masterpieces such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and poetry collections of Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. The Reader’s Hall has another interactive part–a station at which visitors can vote for their favorite American authors and books. The winning favorites are displayed above, on a screen. For those interested in Chicago’s literary history, the Wintrust Chicago Gallery offers photographs, quotes, and information on the city’s most notable writers. It includes a variety of writers, such as poets, novelists, journalists, and film critics. Visitors who are very young will enjoy the Children’s Literature Gallery, which has interactive stations centered around famous children’s books, such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. It also features a stunning mural made by Paul O. Zelinsky that depicts squirrels sitting on branches of a tree, reading children’s books, and performing actions that encompass what the book they are reading is about.
The museum hosts intriguing events that revolve around literature, such as storytime for young visitors and readings done by contemporary writers, and even offers field trips for middle school and high schools students. Visitors can also become members to enjoy perks such as unlimited free admission and invitations to members-only events. As they leave, visitors are encouraged to sign up for the museum’s newsletter and to visit the gift shop, where they can purchase items like t-shirts, books, mugs, and pens. Visitors can also take home some free bookmarks, all of which feature a photograph and a quote from an American writer.
Being surrounded by famous writers and masterpieces in the American Writers Museum is the perfect way to spend an afternoon for writers, readers, or individuals who just want to learn more about literature. The key to a truly unforgettable experience at the museum is to come in with an open mind and to try out every single exhibit. It is a unique place where anyone can have fun, relax, learn, and most importantly, get inspired.
For more information, visit https://americanwritersmuseum.org/