SEAS Alumnus Spearheads Launch of the American Writers Museum

Malcolm O'Hagan

It all started when Malcolm O’Hagan, DSc ’66 went to the Dublin Writers Museum, a collection of exhibits honoring the lives and works of Irish writers. Moved by the experience, Malcolm looked forward to visiting the museum’s counterpart in the United States.

The only problem was, there wasn’t one.

“In this country, we have halls of fame that celebrate sports figures, rock stars, and country singers,” says Malcolm. “But we don’t have an institution that honors the great writers.” To rectify this oversight, Malcolm mobilized a small group of people to explore the possibility of opening a museum dedicated to influential writers in America’s history.

In 2010, the American Writers Museum Foundation was incorporated, and to the delight of literary enthusiasts across the country, the museum is scheduled to open in Chicago, Illinois, in the spring of 2017.

American Writers Museum Map

“We chose Chicago because of its central location,” says Malcolm, who serves on the board of directors. “But also because Chicago is one of America’s great cities, rich in literary heritage and tradition.” The museum is located on Michigan Avenue, close to Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Cultural Center. “Although it’s a national museum,” Malcolm adds, “we see our location as a great opportunity to engage with the Chicago philanthropic community.”

In the “accolades” section of the museum’s website, notable writers, poets, and literary leaders offer praise for the concept. Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough describes the prospective museum as a “grand, highly worthy idea.” Jim Lehrer, American journalist and novelist, says: “There is no better place than Chicago and no better time than now to bring to life the lives of the people who create magic and reality with words.” Jim Leach, former Chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), notes that the museum fills a void. “We…honor politicians and soldiers, athletes and artists, inventors and entrepreneurs,” he says, “but we neglect our writers.” Mr. Leach was also instrumental in securing two sizable grants for the project from the NEH.

Malcolm cites fundraising as the biggest challenge of the project thus far; everyone loves the idea, but many are skeptical about whether or not the model will work. “Museums are usually founded by a wealthy patron—or someone with an art collection,” says Malcolm. “We started with nothing. No money, no collection, which made the process particularly difficult. But we have been both amazed and pleased that we’ve gotten this far. It’s really going to happen.”

Malcolm feels that by using technology to create an interactive experience, people will truly get to know the featured writers and appreciate how their work reflects—and impacts—society. “From the outset, we set up a few principles,” he says. “We were not going to duplicate what others were doing. We don’t want to be an archive or a collection of artifacts—that’s already been done. We see ourselves as the presentation arm of literary America, telling stories about great writers and their works. For example, we will have on display the 120-foot scroll Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road because he didn’t want to change his typewriter paper. Now that’s interesting.”

American Writers Museum Writers Hall

Upon arriving at the museum, visitors will be invited to linger in Writers Hall and take time to plan which exhibits they’d like to explore. For starters, A Nation of Writers is a must-see introductory film that “traces the emergence of a distinct American form of writing that spans the breadth of the country and the range of writing types.” Next, a visit to American Voices, which covers storytelling—both written and oral—up through the 20th century. The Surprise Bookshelf reveals little-known facts about authors, and the Word Waterfall creates a visual feast of floating letters that ‘settle’ into stanzas and phrases. The Children’s Literature Gallery celebrates childhood classics, and for those visitors who long to be great American writers, there will be a place to write—with pencils, pens, typewriters, and computers.

Malcolm describes the museum as “a two-hour intimate encounter with great American writers and their works.” But according to Malcolm, the tireless effort to create the American Writers Museum was also fueled by a much larger purpose. “Enjoyment is important,” he says, “but we want a greater impact. Reading and writing are the cornerstones of civilization—people often don’t appreciate the role writers play in shaping our culture. We want the museum to inspire a new generation of writers and to encourage people to continue to read important works.” —Mary Follin

To find out more or to contribute, visit the American Writers Museum online.