Plans Underway For 'American Writers Museum'

Jul 12, 2013
Originally published on July 17, 2013 4:11 pm

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There are estimated to be well over 17,000 museums in the United States. Philadelphia has the Mutter Museum of Medical History, there's a Spam museum in Austin, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Kansas, has a museum devoted to barbed wire — to name a few.

We are a country based on the written word, starting with the Declaration of Independence.–Malcolm O'Hagan

But there is a glaring oversight, according to Malcolm O'Hagan: a museum celebrating American writers. O'Hagan is the chairman of the American Writers Museum Foundation, and his organization is in the process of opening the American Writers Museum in Chicago.

The idea came to O'Hagan when he visited the Dublin Writers Museum in Ireland and expected to find its counterpart in the United States. He was "astounded" to learn it doesn't exist.

The American Writers Museum seeks to bring literature to the people through exhibits that visitors can interact with, and that put the writers' works in a historical and cultural context.

"We are a country based on the written word, starting with the Declaration of Independence," O'Hagan said. "Whitman has told us who we are, defined what it is to be an American. Steinbeck has shown the plight of the migrant worker. So these writings are all very important and very significant."

The American Writers Museum is expected to open in some form at the end of 2015, and to be completed by 2020.

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

And there are well over 17,000 museums in the United States, according to estimates. Just to name a few, there's the Mutter Museum of Medical History in Philadelphia, there is a SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota, and there's a museum devoted to barbed wire in La Crosse, Kansas. But there should be another museum according to Malcolm O'Hagan. He thinks there should be a museum devoted to American writers. Now, of course, we do have museums for individual writers like Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. But there is no museum devoted to American literature.

Well, Malcolm O'Hagan is the president of the American Writers Museum Foundation, which is trying to open a museum in Chicago. And Malcolm joins from NPR in Washington, D.C. to talk about this project. Welcome.

MALCOLM O'HAGAN: Thank you very much. Delighted to be here.

HOBSON: Well, so why do you think there isn't a museum for American literature, and why do we need one?

O'HAGAN: Well, for the life of me, I can't understand why we don't have one already, and that's most people's reaction when we talk about the museum. We, as you pointed out, we have museums that honor everything. It's extraordinary that we don't have one honoring the great writers and their works and a museum that shows the impact that they have had on our culture, on our history and our daily lives.

HOBSON: What do you think a museum like this would look like? What would it be?

O'HAGAN: It'll be a place of celebration and a place of learning and a fun place. A celebration, in the sense of celebrating the great writers, showing to people the role they have played in our history. It'll be a very interactive experience. It's not going to be a dull library environment. It's going to be a place where people interact and learn about the writers, learn about their works, learn about the context of their works, learn why they're important, and how they have influenced us, how they have influenced our history.

HOBSON: What do you mean it's not going to be a dull library environment? What are you going to do differently?

O'HAGAN: We'll have interactive stations. We will have video. We will have audio. It'll be an opportunity for people to see visually and hear both the works of the authors being read by authors or by poets and to see places, perhaps settings for some of the great novels. They'll be able to go to a large interactive map of the United States and follow some of the great journeys, whether it was "On the Road" or Travels With Charlie" or Lewis and Clark, all sorts of interesting and fun things like that.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk a little bit about you. You do not come from a literary background. You're actually trained as an engineer.

O'HAGAN: I trained as an engineer. I never practiced as an engineer. I spent my life really as a business executive, but I love literature. I love reading. I have the greatest admiration for the writers and what they contribute to our culture.

HOBSON: And our listeners may be a little surprised that you've got an Irish accent, and you're the man who's trying to get a museum for American writers.

O'HAGAN: Well, that shouldn't be too surprising.

(LAUGHTER)

O'HAGAN: After all, we Irish are known for writing, and in fact the idea for the museum came from the Dublin Writers Museum.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about that. You decided that you wanted to do this after a visit to that museum.

O'HAGAN: Yes. It's a small, modest museum in Dublin. I've been there many times. And after coming back - one time, I wondered where the counterpart is here in the U.S. and was astounded to find that it doesn't exist. I talked to some people in the literary community, and the more people I spoke to, the more they shared the amazement that it doesn't exists and a belief that it should. And so, I was inspired and energized to try to do something about it and try to create a museum.

HOBSON: Now, there is the question of how this museum would be organized, and you have talked about having categories like Nobel Laureates, science fiction writers and the short story.

O'HAGAN: And don't forget the poets and the playwrights and some of the non-fiction writing that has had an influence. I mean, we are a country based on the written word starting with the Declaration of Independence, and certainly...

Yeah.

HOBSON: ...that sort of writing has to be featured because it's had a great influence that set the tone for the nation.

O'HAGAN: The great - the poets. I mean, Whitman has told us who we are, defined whether it is to be an American. Steinbeck has shown the plight of the migrant workers and shown how a novel can have a major influence on the way we view people and the way we understand some of the mistreatments that are recurring in society and hopefully take corrective action. So these writings are all very important and very significant.

HOBSON: So what kind of input have you been getting from others about how this museum should be set up and how it should look?

O'HAGAN: Everybody has their own ideas, and certainly about which writers should be featured, which works should be featured. And no matter who is featured, there will always be somebody who will question why certain people are there and why others aren't. One of the ways we intend to address that is to have constantly changing exhibits. The themes might stay the same, but the writers addressing those themes will change from time to time.

HOBSON: What kind of timeline are you looking at for this project? And do you have the money you need?

O'HAGAN: The timeline for the full museum is 2020. We're developing it in phases. The first phase we're hoping to open at the end of 2015, and we're just now about to embark upon the capital campaign.

HOBSON: So for those tourists who are walking through Chicago maybe 10 years from now and they are at the Field Museum and then, maybe, they go to the Art Institute, what is that you think is going to draw them into the Museum of American Writers?

O'HAGAN: Most people are readers, and most people have an interest in authors. That's why book festivals are so popular. There are 5 million people in book clubs. So I think that anybody who's a reader will be interested in learning more about the writers and seeing how we address the whole issue of writers and their works. And by the way, the heads of the major institutions in Chicago have all endorsed the idea of the American Writers Museum.

HOBSON: Well, Malcolm O'Hagan, president of the American Writers Museum Foundation, which you can read all about at our website. You can get a link there as well at hereandnow.org. Malcolm, thank you so much.

O'HAGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.