The first thing to know about the new American Writers Museum in Chicago is that it's not some stuffy institution offering a definitive statement on national literature: who's canon, who's not.

On the contrary, the recently inaugurated space – tucked on the second floor of a nondescript office building on Michigan Avenue – is approachable and unpretentious. It pays tribute to an impressive range of American writers – from sports columnists to novelists, food writers to lyricists – and creatively explores the writing process itself. Above all, it's interactive, combining elements of a classroom, library, gallery and writing studio over 11,000 never-boring square feet.

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Vintage typewriters are available for visitor use at the American Writers Museum in Chicago © Laura Pearson / Lonely Planet

'We celebrate the past in our exhibits and promote the present in our programming,' says AWM president Carey Cranston.

In other words, the focus is mostly on dead writers, but living scribes still make appearances – in temporary exhibits, for example, as well as museum-sponsored readings, signings and discussions. It's the first institution of its kind in the US and the brainchild of Irish immigrant Malcolm O'Hagan, a retired manufacturing executive who was inspired to create it after visiting the Dublin Writers Museum and realizing the States lacked something similar. The privately funded AWM, which opened in Chicago on May 17, 2017, was seven years in the making.

A spirit of collaboration

The curatorial approach balances modesty and ambition. Step inside the lobby, and you'll immediately see a map promoting other literary institutions: more than 60 author homes around the US, including the Robert Frost Farm, Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House, William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and more. Underneath the map are bookmarks, free for the taking, containing info about each site.

'While there was no national writers museum [before], there are lots of author homes and small museums all over the country that specialize in a particular writer,' Cranston says. 'We reached out to them and created an affiliate network.' Thus, the map isn’t just a tip of the hat to these other attractions, but an invitation to go visit them, too.

A spirit of collaboration is similarly acknowledged on an entryway wall listing the many content curators and subject matter experts that helped bring the museum's exhibits to life. Their goal? Not to present 'the best' of American letters but to examine important writers, in a broad sense, and their impact on the culture. 'Within the given space and scope, there was no way to say we were going to cover everything,' Cranston says.

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'Mind of a Writer' is an interactive exhibit at the American Writers Museum that delves into process © Laura Pearson / Lonely Planet

Exhibits to take you behind the books

A company called Amaze Design brought the exhibits to life with an array of digital technology. The first taste of it comes in 'American Voices,' a 60-foot timeline of American literature that stretches down one long wall, with touch screens along the way encouraging visitors to dive deeper into themes such as identity and 'edge' (what makes an author unique). It’s a many-pronged history lesson and a lot to take in.

For something a little less overwhelming, there’s the 'Surprise Bookshelf' on the opposite wall, a series of illuminated boxes that, when turned, showcase snippets of notable American writing—from O’Henry to Tupac Shakur – accompanied by a distinctive scent, sound, object or image. For example, an M.F.K. Fisher quote features the faint smell of strawberry jam, while Harper Lee’s words come with mockingbird calls. Meanwhile, a wall-spanning digital installation known as 'Word Waterfall' provides a meditative moment at the end of the information-packed corridor.

Around the corner in Readers Hall, things get more interactive still. A large room with comfy couches and stocked bookshelves beckons visitors to linger a while. At a touch screen kiosk, you can select your five favorite books, then email yourself a printable PDF bookmark of your picks. An adjacent room called 'The Mind of the Writer' houses vintage typewriters, pens and paper for visitors’ own writerly experiments. Participants can also go online here and add to the 'Story of the Day,' a crowd-authored narrative based on a daily prompt.

The 'Featured Works' section comprises multi-user touch tables, where visitors can select icons along a colorful flowing ribbon in order to delve into more than 25 American masterworks. Nearby, interactive tabletop consoles offer multiple games that allow you to test your knowledge and wordsmithery.

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The Readers Hall at the American Writers Museum invites visitors to stop and stay a while © Laura Pearson / Lonely Planet

Words matter

So much at the American Writers Museum – from learning about great writers to engaging directly with the writing process – aims to advance the museum’s goal to grow future writers, even while it honors authors who’ve come before.

'We want people to recognize that when you write, you have authority, that the use of words can have great impact,' Cranston says.

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A mural by children's book illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky adorns a wall of the Children's Literature Gallery © Laura Pearson / Lonely Planet

What else can I see at the American Writer's Museum?

  • Tuesday First Books: Each month, promising first-time writers appear to discuss their debuts.
  • Family-friendly: The Children’s Literature Gallery features a whimsical mural by renowned illustrator Paul O. Zelinksy and hosts story time with local authors once a month.
  • Chicago gallery: Huge hanging bookmarks chart the city’s notable authors. 'Since the museum is here, we wanted to call out Chicago’s literary history,' Cranston says.
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