Sunday, November 12, 2017

An Engaging First Chapter: The American Writers Museum Provides a Fine Introduction to Storied Authors, Poets, Historians, Songwriters, Critics, etc. — Chicago Museum Review

Museum Review

American Writers Museum
180 N. Michigan, 2nd Floor
Chicago, IL

As hopefully evidenced by this blog—and my other one,—I am a passionate advocate for cultural literacy.

I am also a writer, not just of blog articles of many ilks, but advertising copy, poems, cartoons, greeting cards and much else.

Even more so, while far from the world’s most avid reader of books, I am a fervent admirer of what others have written, in numerous realms.

Thus, per an initial visit to the new American Writers Museum in downtown Chicago, I was most impressed by the breadth of practitioners represented, ranging far beyond novelists.

Between the museum’s Writers Hall—with both pictures and placards denoting hundreds of
individuals—and a smaller section of banners highlighting Chicagoans, names like Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Charles Schulz and Tupac Shakur can be found among those of Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Lorraine Hansberry and Nelson Algren.

Per a couple of friendly associates at the front desk of the museum occupying the second floor of a Michigan Avenue building, the institution’s creators and consultants have decided to focus solely on non-living writers. At least in the permanent collections, as the photographs (of writers) by 95-year-old Art Shay presently comprise a nice if small special exhibit.

Excepting scribes who haven’t yet left us for the great library in the sky, or were bred beyond U.S shores, it seemed that most writers one would expect to find were indeed hanging around the museum.

Though other than the impossibility of including everyone, I was unable ascertain why a children’s gallery spotlighted Maurice Sendak but didn’t seemingly have any mention of Shel Silverstein.

Or why an interactive display allowing patrons to indicate their favorite books and authors completely omitted J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye from even being in the database. (I alerted a staff member to this oversight.)

In indicating I would write about my visit, I was graciously extended complimentary admission but—without overthinking comparisons for cultural expenditures—I would have been satisfied had I paid the standard $12.

But while far from reading every word of text about every writer, even in taking two loops around,
photographing everything—as permissible for all—and taking notes, my visit lasted less than 90 minutes.

And even in being suitably informed and impressed, and solidly recommending the AWM is well-worth your perusal, I can’t perceive the need for a return visit until the museum—which just opened in May—eventually begins its next chapter.

Without suggesting that there are yet any known plans for upgrades, expansion or revision other than a new temporary exhibit soon to open on Laura Ingalls Wilder, the front desk duo corroborated my sense that the museum seems more an exciting work in progress than completed vision. They mentioned that the proprietors themselves have spoken of it as a “first edition.”

Understanding spatial and budgetary constraints are never not a consideration, I would suggest AWM turn to its vast roster of writers, professors, etc. to create some vignette videos briefly expounding on why a specific author, poem, screenplay, etc. is considered great, unique, ahead of its time, important or whatever.

Certainly the museum hosts a nice slate of live programs—though understandably not on many weekday afternoons—and there are already several inspired interactive touches, including games aimed to elucidate on the art of writing and word choices.

In fact, or at least opinion, everything in place is attractively presented; it’s clear a lot of care went into the galleries, including not only presenting writers from disparate milieus but diverse cultural backgrounds.

But it all feels a bit cursory, and while I hope the museum delights and excites curious kids, I expect most visitors will be resigned to learning relatively little—given the limited text that can be devoted to so many worthy subjects—both about writers they already know well and those with whom they’re unfamiliar.

For example, Ernest Hemingway stands as one of the most legendary of all American writers, likely
the most famous novelist (and short story writer) to ever come out of the Chicago area and an author still presumably studied in high school and/or college literature courses.

And certainly Hem is well-represented in the American Writers Museum.

One can read about him in an interactive kiosk about writers from each state. In Writers Hall, his three-sided rotating biography provides a brief overview, a short factoid and a quote about him (by poet Robert Frost). His image with a passage from The Old Man and the Sea is included in a nice Nation of Writers multimedia display. And currently, there are four Art Shay photos of him in the temporary exhibit.

Presumably because the Oak Park born & bred Hemingway didn't spend any of his famed writing career in the Chicago area, he is not--at least to my observance--included in the Chicago Gallery.

Hem's "A Soldier Story" is part of an interactive display devoted to the craft of writing, but overall I was still left with little clarity as to what made Ernest Hemingway so stylistically novel, save for a notation that as a young reporter with the Kansas City Star, he was "forced to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone."

I realize that the only real way to understand what makes a writer great is to read what he or she has written. Though the American Writers Museum does have a Readers Hall that allows one to peruse some great books, the idea isn't to sit there and read all day.

And there are so many great writers represented, I know the current set-up doesn't much allow for deep insights on any, let alone all. But that's where short video vignettes would be nice.

In the Writers Hall, there are multiple video on-demand stations, but at present all have the same
content. Ideally, this could be expanded upon over time, including with greater insights about the writers who adorn the walls.

Perhaps this may get burdensome on busy days, but there are already handy stools provided for those who wish to sit and watch the clips.

Specifically about Hemingway, a museum devoted to him--besides his birthplace museum--just closed in Oak Park, so maybe the AWM can look into getting some materials or tapping into additional subject matter experts. 

Regarding the special exhibit, Capturing Stories: Photographs of Writers by Art Shay, viewing Shay's pictures--ranging from Hemingway to Shay's noted compadre Nelson Algren to George Plimpton, Art Buchwald, Masters & Johnson, Roger Ebert and even Dolly Parton--should certainly accompany any visit to the AWM, and while the gallery isn't particularly extensive, could well provide reason enough to prompt one before a TBA exhibit end date next spring.

I am sorry to have--by just days--missed the exhibit containing the full scroll of Jack Kerouac's manuscript for On the Road, but I had actually seen it elsewhere. As of this writing there's no information on the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit on the museum website, but I was told it is starting soon.

As anyone who has written anything knows--so basically everyone--a lot of good thoughts, ideas and phrasing can go into the first draft, but invariably some spell-checking, editing, refinements or even wholesale rewriting can create vast improvements.

Without meaning it as an exact parallel--the AWM is certainly further along than a "first draft"--this also describes the American Writers Museum.

It is a wonderfully welcome addition to Chicago's cultural landscape, and deserving of bringing in visitors old and young from near and far. If not yet a masterpiece, it represents a fantastic beginning.

And I can't wait to see what happens next.

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Some interesting observations. Thanks for editing this first edition.