CHICAGO — Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.
An Irish former trade association head, a German lawyer and a native-born business executive, all residents of Washington and not an author among them, decide to create a museum dedicated to American writers.
In Chicago, where two of them have never lived.
On the second floor of a Loop office building that will inspire little poetry.
The American Writers Museum lacks a resident curator. And a permanent collection of artifacts, the stuff that generally creates a museum. Its inspiration was not traditional libraries or staid scholarly sites but the International Spy Museum in Washington and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, playful places dedicated to entertainment and whimsy.
The place features few books, except for mostly decorative tomes affixed to the entrance ceiling, creating a canopy of prose.
Why so few volumes in a collection of galleries devoted to the people who write them?
“Libraries are where you go to get books to read,” says Malcolm O’Hagan, 77, the Irishman who hatched the idea of an institution celebrating American writers eight years and 38,000 museum-related emails ago. A museum, on the other hand, “is a very visual place, a social environment where people interact.”
Definitely a visual space, the writers museum relies on zippy interactive displays from Amaze Design of Boston, a word waterfall art installation, fun play tables with catchy graphics that claim to go inside the “mind of the writer,” reading rooms (one for children, another for their elders), and the use of music and film. Scents highlight the works of M.F.K. Fisher (strawberry jam) and James Beard (onions).
On a preview day in May, O’Hagan, a genial man with a white thicket of eyebrows, walked around the museum inviting visitors to create a story on a pair of vintage Royal typewriters. “Take a try!” he urged.
With 11,000 square feet of galleries, the museum cost almost $10 million to get off the ground, an amount that includes substantial gifts from the Washington co-founders and their friends. They also hired development professionals to attract national donors, with an emphasis on Chicago. The founders opted not to sink donations into a building and a star architect’s dazzle, instead conceiving the institution as growing in phases while letting visitors become cozy with the mission.
A permanent building may come later. Or not. The museum is a story without a planned ending.
Reared in Yeats country, O’Hagan, who immigrated to the United States in 1968, was inspired by a townhouse honoring Irish writers on Dublin’s Parnell Square. The former head of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association thought there should be a similar museum in his adopted homeland.
“Growing up in Ireland, I loved the American writers — Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway — that made me love America,” says O’Hagan, a former docent at the Library of Congress. “I love Whitman, and how he defines what it is to be American. It’s all about the stories.”
Lawyer Werner Hein, 74, also fell for this country through its fiction. “I was a child when Germany was in ruins. What caught my imagination, and how I became an enthusiastic reader, was from the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and Hemingway,” he says. “It often takes the fresh eyes of an immigrant to see what’s missing and what can be done.”
Hein was puzzled as to why there wasn’t a place that honored the nation’s authors. “More American writers are read around the world than authors from any other country,” he says.
Hein and O’Hagan met in Washington, where they are members of a writing club. The third co-founder, business executive Jay Hammer, 62, is O’Hagan’s Chevy Chase neighbor and book club colleague.
Although he loves to read, O’Hagan says, “I’m not a good reader. I miss a lot of stuff. I don’t get the deeper meanings.”
His Kenwood Book Club suggests that this may be a bit of blarney. Founded in 2004, with a dozen members, the club has read more than 125 books, not a dime-store novel among them. “We like prizewinners,” O’Hagan says. “Nobel prizes, Pulitzer prizes.”
America is a nation of book clubs. It is also one created and preserved by words, Hammer says. “This is a country basically founded by language, the words in the Declaration of Independence,” he says. “We were saved by the 272 words in the Gettysburg Address. The connection of great American writing to the American spirit seems obvious and worth calling to everyone’s attention.”
When he felt the call to create his writers museum, O’Hagan recruited Hammer and Hein, who had the practical expertise to help him execute his mission. That mission is also guided by a “content leadership team” (which includes former Washington Post books editor Marie Arana) and a sizable “curating team” (mostly academics, including NPR book critic and frequent Post contributor Maureen Corrigan). The Chicago Public Library and other sites will host the museum’s larger author events, and partnerships have been formed with the nation’s vast network of authorial house museums.
The Writers Hall honors 100 “significant” authors of fiction and nonfiction, some better- known than others, and takes great effort to celebrate women and diversity while avoiding the shiny branding of “best.” A wide range of prose stylists — from Tupac Shakur to Julia Child to Richard Pryor and Herman Melville — receive equal homage.
The American Writers Museum is sensitive almost to a fault, although staff members and donors sometimes utter observations that may stun inveterate lovers of the printed word.
“Books can be kind of stale,” says Christopher Burrow, the director of operations. “We’re trying to bring them back to life.”
“I could [not] care less about books,” Hammer says, who was a graduate literature student at Johns Hopkins before pursuing his Harvard MBA. “It’s not the book that drives me. It’s the writing that drives me.”
The choice not to include published artifacts in a permanent collection was deliberate, although two exhibit spaces will feature visiting works.
Jack Kerouac’s original 1951 “On the Road” scroll, the Beat bible, typo corrections and all, is on loan in one of those galleries. The other contains an immersive art installation honoring poet W.S. Merwin, 89, with living palms, a tribute to his Hawaiian home.
The founders considered several cities before settling on Chicago as the home to their vision. “We would have the museum in Washington if it was easy enough,” Hammer says. “But it was missing the rich literary tradition and never seemed to make much sense as a location.” Also, they liked the idea of the museum being in a city central to the country and not nestled on either coast.
The more the trio looked, the more attractive Chicago became. Hammer was raised in the northern Chicago suburbs and attended the same high school as Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), who has been an enthusiastic booster of the institution, the founders say, as was former mayor Richard M. Daley (D).
Chicago boasts national and international tourists as well as deep-pocketed donors, and the museum is just blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago and other cultural jewels. One corner gallery features pennants to Chicago’s thick grove of writers: Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Mike Royko, Ida Wells, and the city’s literary Zeus, Saul Bellow.
Says O’Hagan in his potent Irish brogue, “It’s a real gritty, gutsy American city.”
And now, home to a dream born of his Irish ardor for the American language and the written word. O’Hagan visits the museum regularly.
“The visitor response is overwhelmingly positive, if not downright ecstatic,” he says. “It exceeds everyone’s expectations of what they envisioned in a writers museum.”
His next project: turning the restrooms into additional gallery space — while still keeping them functioning as bathrooms.
“I spent my career doing business,” O’Hagan says. “But I love literature.”