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New writers museum narrates America’s stories

Hillel Italie
Associated Press

Chicago — The American Writers Museum, seven years in the making, is an endeavor even the most daring author might shy from: How, on a single office building floor, do you tell the story of centuries of American language?

The museum’s curators wanted the broadest possible concept of writing, one that includes not just novels, memoirs and poetry, but screenplays, journalism, rap lyrics, advertising slogans and even stand-up comedy. Prince and Tupac Shakur are represented along with Harper Lee and Thomas Jefferson.

Homes and institutions throughout the country are dedicated to individual authors, whether the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, or the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. But this museum, opening Tuesday in Chicago, is the first to attempt a comprehensive portrait.

Chicago, centrally located and associated with great American writers like Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell, was deemed the ideal setting.

The museum, 11,000 square feet on the second floor of a Michigan Avenue office building between a Citibank and a noodle shop, doesn’t have marble floors or grand archways. The layout is bright and intimate, perfect for school trips and family outings.

Along with colorful banners, timelines, placards and a word “waterfall,” there are interactive games and activities. Trivia contests ask questions like which book begins with “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board” (Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”) or who coined the term “factoid” (Norman Mailer)?

One area allows visitors to create their own stories, with writing pads, a manual typewriter and a bulletin board to post the results. The museum also has a “Readers Hall” with bookcases offering such selections as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and the screenplay to Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard.” Wall displays summarize everything from the “evolution” of bookstores to “Voices of Dissent.”

Relying mostly on private funding, the American Writers Museum was conceived in 2010 by Malcolm O’Hagan, former CEO of a manufacturing trade organization who was inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum in Ireland.

“The goal is to tell the story, and stories, of the American contribution to human literary expression,” said Max Rudin, of the museum content team and publisher of the Library of America, which issues hardcover editions of classic American writings. “And (we seek) to do it in ways that capture the energy of our uniquely democratic literary culture in all its diversity and sometimes even its eccentricity.”

The museum that the public first encounters is unlikely to be the same museum in the months and years ahead. Exhibitions will rotate and the permanent collection, focused on dead writers and other public figures of the past, will inevitably require more room. Museum President Carey Cranston says that if “demand and interest” are high enough they might expand to the floor above and double the space.