Call me a curmudgeon, but I’ve always felt jealous of other professions’ museums.
I remember trekking through hall after hall of science museums, art history museums and space museums as a student, many of them full of fun, interactive features and exhibits that helped draw you into the topic in a new way.
But the only writing-focused museums I’ve experienced were always musty, antiquated ordeals — typically the old houses of one writer or another, displaying vintage furniture, clothing and bric-a-brac that, while historically interesting, hardly made me feel invigorated or inspired.
Well, listen up, word nerds, because our time has finally come.
The wholly original American Writers Museum, opened on May 16, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois, and it’s everything you ever wanted a writing museum to be.
Here’s why you’ll want to include it in your next travel plans.
Writing presented in a whole new way
The first museum of its kind, the American Writers Museum’s mission is to “engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.”
It accomplishes this through unique exhibits and modern, multimedia installations designed to not only educate visitors, but also inspire them, surprise them and challenge them to consider writing as not just an end product, but a way of living and approaching the world. It divides its focus smoothly between honoring noteworthy writers and works and exploring the actual experience of writing.
Whether you’ve completed NaNoWriMo every year since its inception or you’ve been struggling with writer’s block for longer than you’d like to admit, the American Writers Museum is sure to excite and motivate you.
You may even find the non-writerly friends and family you convince to come along have a new appreciation for how awesome (and challenging, and maddening) you’ve always known writing is.
As museum president Carey Cranston told Chicago magazine, “It’s not about books under glass.”
What you’ll find inside
The American Writers Museum is only one floor at the moment, but it hopes to expand in time — and its opening offerings are more than enough to keep any scribe or book lover occupied for days.
From a timeline of American writers to a colorful kids’ lit room, the museum covers 500 years of American authors in a way even the most avid of English majors never encountered. (Think: a “Surprise Bookshelf” that allows you to immerse your senses in things like the woodsy scent of Walden or Julia Child’s fresh-baked cookies.)
You’ll also find displays dedicated to the craft of writing and the writing process itself.
In addition to the permanent installations, there are two spaces for rotating exhibits. The first two feature Jack Kerouac and the beat generation and the life and work of W.S. Merwin. If you’re in Chicago in the near future, be sure to stop by to check out the original 120-foot scroll of taped-together pages on which Kerouac composed his first draft.
Interactive exhibits like a mesmerizing video “Word Waterfall,” digital magnetic poetry and a famous first lines guessing game keep visitors engaged from start to finish. If you’re inspired to set your own words to paper, daily prompts are available and you can clip your masterpiece to the wall for others to enjoy.
They also offer a varied calendar of events like workshops, readings, childrens’ storytimes and more, most of which are free to the public.
The American Writers Museum is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is closed on Mondays.
Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors 65 or older, and free for kids 12 and under. Group tours and field trips can be arranged in advance by visiting this page. For parking and directions, see here.
And for those who still have an interest in author-specific museums, 65 of them across the U.S. are now affiliates of the American Writer’s Museum, with more to be added in future. You’ll find a map of their locations and a bookmarks with information for each one at the museum.
Do you plan to visit the American Writers Museum?
Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor; follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.