“Why don’t we have a museum that honors the great writings and writers in America?” That’s the question posed by Malcolm O’Hagan, a retired president and chief executive officer of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and former volunteer docent for the Library of Congress, who has formed the American Writers Museum (AWM) to fill that void.
There are more than 17,500 museums in the United States. Among these are museums that focus on art, history, sports, pop culture, science, technology, race and ethnicity. There’s even museums for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, wax figures, costumes, fashion, and more. But where are the writers? Although there are many wonderful small museums that commemorate the lives of individual writers, almost unbelievably, there is not a single museum dedicated to the history of American literature and to American writers.
In his regular online column at Fine Books & Collections, “Gently Mad,” popular bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes, author of the bestselling compendium of bibliomania, A Gentle Madness, reports that O’Hagan, who claims “the Irish gene for love of literature,”was inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum of his native Ireland.
Bisbanes writes, “O’Hagan’s vision begins with the realization that no such museum exists anywhere in the United States, an especially egregious omission, he feels, considering the richness, depth, and diversity of American literature.”
“Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been contributed to museums, and not a penny has gone to literature,” [O’Hagan] said. “Who has had a greater influence on our culture? The words of Jefferson and Lincoln? The words of Martin Luther King, Jr.? These are the words that resonate with people, and yet we don’t have an institution that recognizes that, and elevates it.”
While skeptics might argue that this is the role of libraries and the Library of Congress is our monument, O’Hagan points out that the “guiding principles” of the AWM explicitly rejects the archivist’s role. Instead, the AWM’s purpose is to “Bring the works of American writers to life through a full spectrum of compelling interactive exhibitions, programs and activities that engage, provoke thought, inspire dialogue, surprise, delight, inspire, educate and enrich.”
“Museums are totally changing the way they interpret things,” O’Hagan said. “In the old days, you were judged by the number of artifacts you had. Now, what matters is how you present material, and how you engage people. We will exhibit the standard manuscripts and letters, of course, but we don’t want to duplicate what is already being done by the great research libraries. We will draw from the great libraries, and provide them with an opportunity to put some of their treasures on display. And we don’t want to give awards either, there are enough of them out there already, and we don’t want to put up a whole lot on our website in terms of literary content and literary criticism.”
The principal goal is to celebrate and share the heritage of American literature, “and invite visitors of all ages to discover and renew their love of reading” through modern, professionally designed exhibitions and displays. “It will showcase writers, their work, and their role in defining American society,” O’Hagan said.
O’Hagan says he is”putting in my own money initially to try to get the ball rolling” but ultimately hopes to raise $200 million, most of it from “a philanthropist or two.” “The money will come,” O’Hagan says, “if the idea is right … I’m absolutely confident that there are people that will want to fund this.” According to Basbanes, “enthusiastic support for the project has already come from Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and his staff, with the result that a temporary location for the museum will likely be in that city, probably for five years.”
“People read for all sorts of reasons: escapism, fun, entertainment,” said O’Hagan. “The core of the museum has to feature the work of American writers and literature. And it has be a wonderful experience that stimulates a better appreciation of how important writing and writers are to our history and how they have shaped it.”
There is strong enthusiasm for the project. The American Writer’s Museum’s 30-age Concept Plan outlines a view of what it could like. Their website also offers anyone the ability to share their ideas of what should be included in the museum as well as the ability to become involved and donate to the museum. Progress has been slow – creating a museum is a gigantic undertaking and takes an immense amount of time and money – but it is a project worth keeping an eye on, especially if you are a writer or reader at any level. Or better yet – spread the word.
To quote Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities:
There is a void in the American museum world. We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes and artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers. In a country established as an idea explicated in written documents and embellished by generations of poets, novelists, and critics, the case for commemorating the written word is self-evident. After all, what is written describes a people and what is celebrated defines their values.
One day it may be you who is inducted into the American Writers Museum; but, until that time, we should do everything within our power to ensure that those who have left their indelible ink on the pages of our hearts have a place to call home.
Our writers deserve it.
The American Writers Museum Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization (Federal Tax ID Number 27-1822749). All donations made to the Foundation are 100% tax deductible.