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American Writers Museum is just a dead writers’ society

A new “national” institution presents a touch-screen literary history.

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Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle checks out the exhibits at the American Writers Museum with the museum’s director of operations, Christopher Burrow. - RICH HEIN/SUN-TIMES
  • Rich Hein/Sun-Times
  • Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle checks out the exhibits at the American Writers Museum with the museum’s director of operations, Christopher Burrow.

The first exhibit you're likely to encounter at the new American Writers Museum is a temporary installation.

That's a good thing, because it means that Palm: All Awake in the Darkness—a commissioned artwork meant to evoke poet W.S. Merwin's garden in Maui and consisting mostly of potted plants on wire shelves—will eventually be removed.

Until then, visitors can be forgiven if (in spite of a heavy-duty exhibit brochure) their first impression of the museum falls somewhere between middle-school science project and Botanic Garden reject.

Once past Palm, however, the museum, which opened last week on the second floor of a vintage office building at 180 N. Michigan, reveals itself as a friendly little place, a sort of populist literary arcade comfortably in tune with the era of Trump and Twitter.

Longer on gadgetry than on literature, AWM is all about the breezy quote and the glitzy busywork toys that are now the currency of the exhibit industry: push a button, spin a wheel, drag an icon, and the gadgets spit out a thimbleful of data. It's American Lit 101 (and more), the nutshell version. The books? Look up when you first walk in: a lot of them are stapled to a framework hanging just below the ceiling.

There's a small children's gallery, furnished with cozy couches, hung with banners that are blowups of beloved illustrations, and featuring a narrow-path program of closely directed, often reductive visitor participation that runs through the adult exhibits as well. Kids can decide which of the Little Women is most like themselves, or tap a screen to start a reading by Langston Hughes before they move along to the wall-mounted and tabletop screens that dominate the rest of the galleries.

The long Nation of Writers hall displays, on one side, the museum's most substantive exhibit: a time line of American history that includes writers from each period. On the opposite wall, its most gimmicky: a series of lighted, hinged boxes that can be flipped to reveal, on their backside, minuscule quotes from famous scribes in a variety of genres, or blurbs about them, sometimes backed by little videos. The museum includes only dead writers, but the categories are wide open: Emily Post is here; so is Prince.

The Readers Hall features brief wall-text histories of writing-related entities (bookstores, magazines, comics) and a screen that permits visitors to vote for their favorite authors and books. The top three writers when I was there? Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, and Rafi Zabor.

A second temporary exhibit, on loan and under glass, is the only significant original artifact in the museum: the long roll of tissue-thin paper, brown with age, on which Jack Kerouac typed his 1957 beatnik stream-of-consciousness novel On the Road.

There's also a projected "waterfall of words," an invitation to sit down at a typewriter and add your own lines to an ongoing story, and a Mind of a Writer gallery with more touch-and-drag screens—you can find out which author fired up with a brownie or with alcohol, tap on a word and see its origin pop up, and win points by filling in the blanks in a poem.

The final exhibit, a gallery of banners honoring Chicago authors, brings you back to where you started, at an entry area that doubles as a gift shop, stocked with T-shirts and free bookmarks, each featuring one of the many writers' home museums affiliated with the AWM, and flanked by kiosks with interactive maps showing where each home is located.

This positioning of the AWM as a hub for the scattered authors' home museums is its most focused function; the rest of it suffers from a superficiality born of overreach. And its dependence on technological sizzle means it's going to have to continuously (and expensively) update. With everyone carrying a touch screen in his or her pocket, the novelty of AWM's current gizmos is already pretty thin.

Museum founder Malcolm O'Hagan has told interviewers that he brought the museum to Chicago in part because of the "generous philanthropic community" here. That's not good news. This slimly endowed, barely visible institution, charging $8 to $12 for admission and optimistically projecting up to 120,000 annual visitors, will need national donors and amazing programming to keep it going.

Otherwise, it'll be attempting to suck at the funding pool that feeds local nonprofits (some of which overlap its mission) while it limps along like the perennially challenged Museum of Broadcast Communications a few blocks away.

Or maybe, like the ecological musings visitors are invited to write on pieces of paper that'll be shipped back to the Merwin property in Hawaii, it'll be mulch.  v

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