Known as the birthplace of the skyscraper, Chicago’s home to some of the USA’s most prized cultural treasures. From the Art Institute to the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, Chicago’s museums are some of the best in the world. Now the City of Big Shoulders, nicknamed that by poet Carl Sandburg, is opening its arms to the nation’s first museum dedicated to American writing. Visiting Chicago’s American Writers Museum is the newest must-see stop for lit lovers.
Visiting the American Writers Museum in Chicago
If you were walking from Chicago’s Mag Mile to Millennium Park, you’d likely walk right past the American Writers Museum. Except for a small exterior sign, it looks like any other office building in the Loop. The 11,000 square foot American Writers Museum, opened in May of 2017, takes up the entire second floor of a 24 story Art Deco-style building near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph, the epicenter of Chicago tourism. A security guard sits at a desk inside the ornate lobby and will direct visitors to the second floor for the museum. Step off the elevator and you’re in the museum’s lobby.
It’s a relatively small space. Yet I happily spent three hours there and could have even spent more time exploring it. American Writers Museum president Carey Cranston told me its prime tourist location was the reason they chose this site. They wanted to make sure it was easily accessible for out-of-towners, and it is. It’s a block north of popular Millennium Park, the Art Institute and the Cultural Center, and just a few blocks south of Magnificent Mile shopping.
There were no priceless books stored in vaults or author’s personal pens, notebooks or typewriters. The American Writers Museum isn’t the kind of place where you have to handle anything with special gloves. Except for the rotating exhibit focusing on one author, everything in this museum is meant to be touched and handled. As a result, it’s a perfect museum for kids.
Thirteen permanent exhibits are displayed in six different galleries. Also, there are two rotating temporary exhibits. Here’s a rundown of what I saw at Chicago’s American Writers Museum:
Children’s Literature Gallery
As you step into the dimly lit lobby, it feels cutting edge, but the Children’s Literature Gallery, next to the reception desk, is bright and colorful. Plenty of children’s books fill the area, side-by-side with a few interactive activities. Having the children’s area right there in the lobby is a smart way to immediately give kids something to do while parents are either waiting in line to pay for admission, asking questions or browsing in the gift shop.
Large, colorful illustrations of six beloved children’s classics make the space immediately welcoming to kids. All ages will enjoy exhibits about children’s books like Good Night Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat and more.
My daughter particularly enjoyed spinning the whimsical “wheel of emotions” attached to the exhibit of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Spin the wheel, look into the accompanying mirror and act out the emotion that the wheel lands on— grumpy, hopeful, doubtful, etc… What a great way to connect kids with the psychological metaphors of this beloved bedtime story. While my daughter was busy spinning that wheel, I was reading about how Charlotte’s Web was E. B. White’ attempt to connect children with nature.
As you enter the museum, two touch screen kiosks allow you to discover important American authors from your home state. Then say hello to “A Nation of Writers”- a large video installation in the shape of the United States. The screen maps out iconic American writers, projecting their images and notable quotes.
Right next to this high-tech display is a more traditional timeline of American literary history. The “Authors Wall” highlights 100 deceased American writers. Here you’ll find expected authors like Washington Irving, Tennessee Williams, Edith Wharton and Ralph Ellison, as well as unexpected authors. One of the most noteworthy is Abigail Adams, here because of her eloquent correspondences with her husband, President John Adams.
Directly across from the “Authors Wall”, 100 iconic American pieces of writing are on display in the “Surprise Wall.” It emphasizes the power words have had on American culture. From Richard Pryor’s groundbreaking 1975 stand-up routine “Is It Something I Said?” to iconic advertising slogans like “You’re in Good Hands with All State” and the Timex jingle, “It Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking,” you’ll find them all here. Turn over the display board for John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address or Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna” to hear iconic Americana.
This is the one place where you’ll actually find treasured literary artifacts. This gallery rotates temporary exhibits like the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and treasures of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It also features a table of old-fashioned typewriters. This was my daughter’s favorite spot in the museum. Since she’d never seen an old typewriter, she busily spent a half hour loading paper and typing her thoughts out.
Mind of a Writer Gallery
Finally, we get to my favorite part of the museum. It’s all about the motivations, muses, habits and daily lives of iconic American writers. We love the hi-tech tables where visitors can play with language or learn more about their favorite writers. Kids will love the Wordplay game table.
Admission is $12 for adults. Kids under 12 are free.