How does one honor, educate, and preserve over 200 years of literary history? For a group of bookish individuals, the American Writers Museum will do just that. Slated to open in March 2017 in Chicago, the digitally-minded museum will focus on showcasing the wide-ranging and ever-changing American literary landscape through exhibitions, talks, and galleries that cover the complicated but significant history of the country’s greatest literary minds. Inverse spoke to Nike Whitcomb, the museum’s executive director, about how they hope to do just that.
Why do you feel there should be a museum dedicated to American writers?
How long have you been a writer?
A fairly long time.
And what do you think about celebrating American writers?
I think they should be celebrated. I think it’s an interesting area to explore in a museum though. Still, just because there isn’t one….
There isn’t one and if you think about the power of words in every aspect of your life, whether it’s great novels or great plays or great speeches or great advertising or great songs, all of those revolve around words, and we aren’t celebrating that. We should be.
Why do you think there hasn’t been one American museum specifically dedicated to writers and literature?
I think it’s one of those things where people assume there already is one. The museum’s founder, Malcolm O’Hagan, is an Irish ex-pat who is now a docent at the Library of Congress. One of the questions he kept getting asked about it is whether it was a writer’s museum or not. That caused him to find out there wasn’t one.
How will the main exhibits be primarily historical and focus on the writers themselves? Would it be based on literary movements?
All of the above. One of the great things about this museum is it’s going to be digitally focused, which means we have a lot more leg room to move things around, change things, to pick up on different genres, different periods of time, different ethnicities, etc.
So for example, if we wanted to do something about female writers of the 19th century, we would do an exhibit on that. If we wanted to do something about speeches that changed the world, we could pick up on the Gettysburg Address and we could pick up on the “I Have a Dream” speech and others like that. So it’s those kinds of things that get called out through the museum that will, I hope, help people see things differently.
Will the museum work to acquire manuscripts or documents?
We’re not intending to be a collection-based museum. We will from time to time have items from various collections on display, but one of the issues is you don’t really want people to touch them because it will disintegrate the material. You also have climate issues that you have to deal with. So it’s not our intention to deal with that sort of thing.
What separates the museum from a well-funded library that showcases similar topics or exhibits?
A well-funded library is intended to have the books as a centerpiece. Ours is to celebrate the lives of the people who created the books. To me that’s very different. It’s not to say libraries are bad. I love libraries! The point is this is the chance for people to learn more about the people themselves.
How can visitors expect to experience the lives of these specific writers?
We’ll be able to transform the rooms through projected images into Emily Dickinson’s room or Walt Whitman’s room or Louisa May Alcott’s room or Saul Bellow’s room. The images of their rooms will be projected on four walls, so you can see how the room was laid out, whether there were bookshelves or not, whether there was a desk and typewriter, whether there was a view out the window — all those things will be visible and give people the sense of what it would have been like to be one of those authors.
How do you think the museum will attract non-literary types?
Well there’s going to be some fun things too. There’s a word game section, for example, featuring those kinds of things to get people to create. Also there’s a whole section on Chicago writers.
So it’ll be a more personal connection to the city?
So when people say they live in New York, they mean the five boroughs and some spill over into New Jersey and Long Island. If you say you’re from Chicago, you could actually be from Waukegan, which is 40 miles north. So there will be a whole room about writers who have grown up in Chicago and/or lived in Chicago to write and how their lives were impacted by where they lived. Think of Studs Terkel, think of Saul Bellow, think of Frank Baum, think of Ernest Hemingway, those kinds of people.
How much will the museum be willing to look outside what’s accepted as the main canon of American literature?
We definitely intend to look at different things and not be just vanilla. This is going to be a panoply of all different sorts of writing. We have advisors who are working on this from all over the country and in a wide range of expertise — university people as well as the book people themselves. At the moment, one of the criteria to be in a permanent exhibit is you probably aren’t alive anymore. However, there will be exceptions to that because there are exceptional people.
Are there any other criteria used to determine who or what will be covered in the museum?
It’s a collaboration of thought. We’ve cast a really wide net on this to make sure that we’re not excluding something deliberately.
Are there genres the museum won’t cover?
We’re probably not going to be doing pulp fiction, dime novels, those kinds of things. We’re not looking at the crank-out-a-story-a-day kind of fiction. That’s not what we’re looking at. We’re looking at celebrating the best of the American writing that’s out there.
The act of reading is so personal but still active at the same time. How difficult was it to correlate that into a communal museum experience?
I don’t know if I have a perfect answer for you on that. But I met a little boy the other day who was making paper airplanes, which right away is an anachronism for what most kids are doing today. I asked him what else he liked to do and he said he liked to read. So I asked him who his favorite writer was and he said, “I don’t have just one!” Then he proceeded to ramble off his favorite authors. Then he said the comment that got me hooked. He said, “I don’t like movies very much. They’re never as good as my imagination.” That is what we want to capture.
How will the museum capture that?
There will be a children’s area, there will be a place for you to interact with the exhibits. We’ll have a story of the day every day. There will be readings that we’ll do. There will be authors and writers that come to the museum for presentations. We hope to foster meeting groups of some of the creative writing groups that already exist. We’re trying to be as integrated into the community as we possibly can.
You said to be featured in the museum you probably can’t be alive anymore. But will the museum focus on addressing 21st century developments in American writing?
I’m confident that over time we will be able to evolve in a lot of different directions and take different genres or different groups of people and explore the writing in a better way, like Native American writing or African American writing. There are lots of ways to do this and none of them are off the table.