The American Writers Museum in Chicago—on the second floor of a Michigan Avenue office building—is a hidden gem for bibliophiles. There’s nothing else in the U.S. like this modern, two-year-old museum dedicated to the works of American authors, poets and playwrights, ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Tupac Shakur to Dr. Seuss.
Plan to spend an hour perusing the rooms within the museum, which tells stories about the books and poetry you’ve read and loved, and introduces you to some new ones, too. Within each room, find a variety of interactive experiences, such as touch screens, rotating flip boards, eye-catching displays and trivia games to engage visitors. For example: Which book begins with “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board”? Answer: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
It’s slightly hypnotizing to stand in front of the state-of-the-art Word Waterfall, a light-driven art installation. And it’s awe-inspiring to see the taped-together scroll that was Jack Kerouac’s first draft of his famous beat novel, “On the Road.”
Displays let you follow writers like John Steinbeck in their literary travels, or “visit” fictional sites such as “The House of the Seven Gables.”
The walls of the In the Mind of the Writer gallery are decorated with quotes, Mad Lib-style word plays and a touch screen where guests learn fun facts about iconic penmen. Who knew Walt Whitman ate oysters while he wrote? And Ernest Hemingway often had a six-toed cat in the room?
Of course, space is designated to legendary Chicago authors such as Studs Terkel and Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as plenty of famous Illinois natives like Galesburg’s Carl Sandburg, Waukegan’s Ray Bradbury and Oak Park’s Ernest Hemingway.
The kid-friendly museum has couches in the children’s literature room with books like “Charlotte’s Web.” Children also enjoy tapping a foreign-looking device (at least to them) called a typewriter. Here, they’re encouraged to type a story, or if their creative juices are flowing, continue an already-started story.
On your way out, pop into the museum’s gift shop, with literary-inspired gifts like Edgar Allan Poe dolls or a T-shirt with the Emily Dickinson quote, “I dwell in possibility.” And, of course, there are plenty of books available for purchase.
Temporary Museum Exhibits
Bob Dylan: Electric Extended — now through Fall 2019
Artifacts from the folk legend’s songwriting process are displayed, and storyboards explain his influences and impact on both musicians and writers. It’s in one of two galleries in the museum that have rotating exhibits. A previous one recreated poet W.S. Merwin’s Hawaii home, complete with palm trees, a greenhouse and audio recordings of his poetry.
Tools of the Trade — opens June 2019
See more than a dozen typewriters used by famous authors. Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 portable Underwood, Maya Angelou’s 1980 electric Adler Meteor and Helen Keller’s braille typewriter are among the items in the collection.
Last year, the museum hosted nearly 50 author events, bringing in top names for intimate conversations. Past speakers include author Sandra Cisneros, who wrote, “The House on Mango Street.” She spoke about race, writing and living near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Guided and self-guided tours are available. Download audio tours to your phone, including themed options such as one focused on female writers.
The American Writer’s Museum is one of many literary landmarks across Illinois. To continue your book smart travels, visit Hemingway’s birthplace in Oak Park; the Union Stockyards Gate in Chicago (prominently featured in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book “The Jungle”); or the Carl Sandburg State Historic Site in Galesburg. Mark your 2020 calendar: the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum opens in downtown Waukegan.
Additionally, one weekend each summer, Chicago hosts the largest free outdoor literary showcase in the Midwest, Printers Row Lit Fest (June 8-9, 2019).
The American Writer’s Museum belongs to an association of small, specialized museums around Chicago, which you can learn about at culturelikealocal.com.
American Writer’s Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, AmericanWritersMuseum.org. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and free for children ages 12 and under.