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When the American Writers Museum opened in Chicago in 2017, it became the first museum in the US to celebrate all genres of writing. Early in the planning phase, founder Malcolm O’Hagan made a couple of key decisions: no artifacts and no single curator.
In this episode, the museum’s programs director Allison Sansone explains how these decisions continue to shape the museum, from a timeline of 100 significant authors of fiction and nonfiction to galleries honoring the craft of writing.
This episode was recorded at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, IL, USA on September 2nd, 2018. This episode was released in tandem with Club Archipelago 5. 50th Episode Extravaganza 🎉.
If you like episodes like this one, you’ll love Club Archipelago. Join Club Archipelago today for $2 to help me continue making podcasts about museums (and get some fun benefits)!
00:15 Museum Archipelago's 50th Episode 🎉
01:50 The American Writers Museum
02:00 Programs Director Allison Sansone
02:15 Museum Founder Malcolm O’Hagan
02:50 Early Decisions
03:45 American Voices Exhibit
05:30 The Mind of a Writer Gallery
06:45 Story of the Day Exhibit
08:20 The Craft of Writing the Museum
TranscriptBelow is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 50. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.
Well, not quite. This is the 50th episode of Museum Archipelago, and I’m celebrating by compiling this message, from listeners like you.
[Message from Museum Archipelago listeners]
Thanks so much for being a listener for these first 50 episodes. It really means a lot. If you can’t sill get enough, support the show directly by becoming a member of Club Archipelago on Patreon. You get access to a bonus podcast feed, where I just posed a retrospective on the first 50 episodes of the show, and how the podcast media and museum media landscape have changed since the first episode.
Now, onto the next 50. Let’s really get started.
Allison Sansone: The idea is to highlight the impact that writing can have on the culture and in our daily lives. My Name is Allison Sansone, I’m the programs director here at the American Writers Museum.
The American Writers Museum opened in May of 2017 on the second floor of a stately but nondescript building on Michigan Ave. But the story of the museum begins decades ago, when the founder of the museum, Malcolm O’Hagan, immigrated to the United States from Ireland.
Allison Sansone: He is a lover of literature and a fan of American writing, and after a visit back home to Ireland, to the Irish writers museum in Dublin, he came back to DC and asked around about where the American Writers Museum might be. Hearing that we didn’t have one, he said, I’ll fix that, and 10 years later, here we are.
Those 10 years were filled with decisions about what to include in the museum — and what to leave out.
Allison Sansone: Malcolm made a couple of decisions that are very important in the design of the museum. The first is we are not to make this an artifact-based space. Malcolm tells this great story: he’s a docent at the Library of Congress and he’ll take people over to see the Gutenberg bible. It’s in a glass case, so you can’t touch it. It’s in German, so you can’t read it. People absorb a snippet of information about it, they take a selfie with it, and they leave. He really wanted this to be a place where people could really dive into the writers and their works and learn something. The other decision that was made really early on was to not have a single curator. We had more than 40 subject matter experts from all across the country, all different literary and ethnic backgrounds from all different traditions, who over the course of 7 years, met and discussed and argued and debated over who should be in this museum and what the themes should the museum address.
You can see the work of these subject matter experts in the museum’s largest exhibit, a long chronological timeline of 100 “significant” authors of fiction and nonfiction called “American Voices.”
Allison Sansone: They’re not the 100 best or the 100 most important, but they are 100 people who have moved American literary traditions forward, so they were important in the development in what we think of as the American identity and the American voice. You have writers in that timeline from pre-colonial exploratory narratives all the way to almost the present day. Throughout it all, there are names you would expect to see there. Mark Twain is there, Hemingway is there, Laura Engel Wilder is there, so is Sophia Alice Callahan, the Native American novelist who is a contemporary of hers. And it begins in Spanish and it ends in Spanish. Because it starts with DeVacca who’s a Spanish explorer and wrote a narrative of very, very early North America and it ends in Spanish with the great novelist Oscar Hijuelos, who wrote “The Mambo Kings [Play] Songs of Love.” One of the thorny questions they had to settle on what who was an American writer? Do you have to be born here? Do you have to have written in English? Do you have to have lived here your whole life? There are writers in this museum who don’t fit that criteria. So what makes them American? Well, what makes them American is that they say that they are.They claim us, so we claim them right back. It was incredibly critical that this museum look like America, and it not be either an academic vision or a popular vision, that we not have that box.
It’s clear that the focus of the museum is on the words themselves — it’s not the American Book Museum or the American Authors Museum. Aside from the American Voices gallery, much of the rest of the museum is focused on the craft of writing and reading. There’s a gallery called The Mind of A Writer, where visitors, mostly through interactives, scroll through insights into how writers think.
Allison Sansone: Our Mind of a Writer Gallery really focuses on the process of writing and how you write. It’s important to us to honor not just individual achievement, but also the work that went into that. It’s important to point out to people, especially to aspiring writers, that these writers achievements were not things that happened because they sprang full-form from their heads. Jack Kerouac typed “On the Road.” On a digital scroll we have here in the museum, you can see the entire manuscript, but you can also see his editing marks where he crossed things out, where he changed his mind, he moved things around. The writers had to work at this, and we wanted to be able to honor that work.
I’m tickled about the focus on words and the process of writing. The gallery manages to honor the craft of writing, while not putting it out of reach to a museum visitor. There’s an exhibit called Story of the day, which is made up of typewriters, chairs, and at the beginning of the day a single opening line. Visitors are instructed to write the next line, then the next throughout the day.
Allison Sansone: Story of the day, our typewriter exhibit where people can continue other people’s stories, that initially had started out as a giant scroll of paper on which people wrote in pencil suspended from the ceiling. It obviously looks very different now. Part of the joy of that interactivity is that it takes activities that are very solitary, reading and writing, we think of the author alone in his garret and his quill pen, working by himself. And you see the reader alone with her book. What our Story of the Day exhibit allows us to do, what our featured works and our Wordplay tables allow us to do is to make reading and writing about community, to enjoy words together. This is how we encounter each other in the world, we read and we write now more than we ever have. We don’t think about it a lot because it is done on something like this, it does on a device or its done on a tablet, but that’s writing. And that’s reading. And to be able to use that to connect with each other is a very powerful thing about that gallery.
Some modern museums go out of their way to present as little text as possible with the assumption that visitors won’t read it. At the American Writers Museum, believe it or not, there’s a lot of text.
Allison Sansone: There is a lot of text. If you’re the type of person who reads every word on the wall of a museum, you’re going to be here a while. But we think that’s a good thing.The craft of actually writing the museum was something that took a great deal of time. We approached it with a lot of respect for the writer’s work: we didn’t want to trivialize. We figured early on that this museum would attract readers, that it would attract people who loved words, so we weren’t afraid to challenge visitors with maybe a little bit more information than they might be getting from their typical museum visit.
And, with the American Writers Museum’s broad definition of writing, there’s not reason that the gallery text itself couldn’t be featured in a future edition of the museum. And that’s kind of neat.