Spotlight: The American Writer's Museum

  • February 24, 2012

The first national museum in the United States dedicated to engaging the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture and our daily lives.

“From Black Ink to Blueprints: American Writers Museum Begins to Take Shape”

Imagine stepping into a beloved book—savoring the glitz and glamour of one of Gatsby’s bashes; knitting in front of a cozy fire with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy; or floating down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim. It’s every book-lover’s fantasy, and a devoted group of people is dedicated to bringing these types of experiences to life through the creation of the American Writers Museum.

As of now, there is no museum dedicated solely to the American literary tradition and its authors, but the American Writers Museum Foundation aims to change that. According to its website, the Foundation’s mission is “to establish the first national museum in the United States dedicated to engaging the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture and our daily lives.”

The Foundation was established in early 2010 by Dr. Malcolm O’Hagan. A native of Ireland, O’Hagan is retired from a successful career in industry, most recently as President and CEO of the National Electric Manufacturer’s Association. A visit to the Dublin Writers Museum on a trip to Ireland begged the question of why no such museum existed in the United States, and provided the inspiration that led him to begin the movement.

According to the Foundation’s Vice Chairman, Werner Hein, O’Hagan began by recruiting a small group of like-minded friends from the book clubs and writer’s groups he was involved in. Each person brought his or her own set of professional skills to the table—Hein, for example, is senior counsel at the law firm Mayer Brown, and contributed the legal expertise needed to establish the Foundation as a 501c3 tax-exempt non-profit (the Foundation is now a pro bono client of Mayer Brown).

Now about two years into its existence, the Foundation is making real progress toward the goal of creating an American Writers Museum. According to Hein, in the next three months the Foundation will hopefully have gained the seed money necessary to launch its capital campaign in earnest. It has developed a business plan, and in September received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a series of charettes—brainstorming sessions to help develop a conceptual plan for the museum. Three of the four charettes have already taken place with the participation of literary, museum, and design experts from around the country.

One big question about the museum has been answered. After considering several cities, including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, the Foundation’s board of directors settled on Chicago as the future home of the museum. Hein explained that the goal was to find a destination city in a central location, with a strong literary heritage and vibrant literary and civic community. Chicago fit the bill. The group has been impressed with the enthusiastic reception the future museum has received in Chicago, and has even begun to identify potential venues.

And although the museum’s conceptual plan is still in progress, some major thematic elements are clear. While artifacts such as manuscripts and authors’ belongings will be a part of what it offers, they will not be the main focus, and the museum will not concentrate on building a collection—it will rely on loans for these materials. Rather, the heart of the museum will be in interpretive, experiential exhibits.

According to Hein, the museum will “make significant use of multimedia interactive technology to take stories from between the covers of a book and display them in a very engaging way.”  The museum’s primary target audience will not be literary experts, and not necessarily even devout readers. While still satisfying the demands and standards of aficionados, the museum will strive to be “educational but not didactic” and provide a means of reaching out to the general public and, quite simply, to get people reading. As Hein explains, one of the major goals of the museum will be “to take people by the hand and show them what they’re missing when they don’t read.”

With the challenges of raising money in an economic downturn, the museum is still some time away from opening its physical doors. But forward progress is being made. The American Writers Museum Foundation is planning a traveling exhibit on American immigrant literature, and is also spearheading a project to create a national association for authors’ homes and museums to share knowledge, resources, and marketing strategies, and to forge long-term collaborative relationships.

As this movement for celebrating America’s literary heritage and culture gains momentum, ideas are welcome—the group’s website,, includes a link to a survey where the public is encouraged to share opinions and feedback.


Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Virginia. She studied English at Cornell University with a focus on the history of the novel, and works for an environmental organization in Washington, DC.

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