American Writers Museum

Greetings from Chicago where it is currently 1°C and snowing! Definitely a change from the desert heat of Las Vegas. Due to the weather, we decided that visiting a museum would be wise. The American Writers Museum, located on Michigan Avenue, is dedicated to celebrating the influence of American writers on American history, culture, and identity.

I really want to focus on the Museum’s interactives. In order to do that, however, I’m going to start with an overview of the Museum and its exhibitions.

Overview

The Museum is all located on one level. The exhibitions are organised so that you start where you purchase your tickets and work your way back around to the entrance in a circle. There are five permanent displays and a temporary exhibition space. This post will cover interactives in A Nation of Writers: John and Cathie Estey and the Mind of a Writer Gallery. I didn’t find the interactives in the other three permanent display areas as engaging.

Here are two overview images of the A Nation of Writers gallery.

This exhibition chronologically covers the life and work of 100 American writers. Each has a photograph and label that can be rotated to discover more information. Some have interactives while others have more in-depth thematic panels.

The Mind of a Writer Gallery is a more open space with different activities throughout. It was slightly more difficult to capture the entire exhibition so I have no overview images.

A Nation of Writers: John and Cathie Estey

Surprise Bookshelf

The Surprise Bookshelf is located on the righthand side of the gallery. As you can see, the entire wall is covered in illuminated boxes. Visitors can rotate each box to discover a surprise about the author or text on the front of the box. The surprise could be a photograph, sound or even smell.

One of my favourites was The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher written in 1943. When the box is rotated it emits a very sweet strawberry scent. There is also a box for Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, 1990. Inside is a piece of amber with an insect inside. It asks the question should we tinker with nature?

The boxes are a fun idea that encourage visitors to interact with such a diversity of texts. I did, however, feel bad for opening the boxes with sound because they are very loud.

Welcome to Sleepy Hollow

This was my favourite interactive in the whole museum. On the panel are descriptions of three characters from the novel Sleepy Hollow written by Washington Irving. Accompanying each description is a flipbook containing different visual representations of the characters from drawings, film and television. Visitors are asked to compare what is written with the images in front of them and decide which character looks most like the description from the book.

The Social Ladder

Here visitors can explore how two female protagonists from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Theodore Dreiser’s Sisters Carrie climbed and fell off the social ladder. When the wheel rotates, it reveals another step each took towards their rise or fall. These steps were mostly influenced by external factors. For example, as one moved to New York, the other was impacted by false rumours and jealously.

Touch the Past

In her novel series Little House, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes growing up in the northern Midwest during the mid-1800s. In this interactive, visitors can touch some of the fabrics mentioned in her works.

Whodunit?

No spoilers here, I promise. Basically, this tests trivia skills asking visitors to try and guess who invented the various genres on display. To discover the answer, visitors must lift the tab.

There are a few more interactives in this space, but, these really stood out to me as being the most engaging.

Mind of a Writer

Story of the Day

A really cool interactive where visitors can contribute to a story. The interactive consists of eight typewriters and some spare paper. The idea is that you write a line or two then leave your story for someone else to finish. The only rule is to be clean. That hadn’t been followed, but, it was interesting to read some pretty bizarre stories.

Build a Routine

Does your daily routine match that of a famous writer? Select your fuel, habits, favourite things and companions and the machine will tell you who matches your routine. For fuel, I was matched with John Steinbeck. Turns out there is a shared appreciation of cheese and doughnuts.

Dialogue Generator

If you are looking for inspiration for dialogue between characters then this is a great interactive. After selecting two characters and a scenario, you can then type out some dialogue. There are only four lines to fill, two for each character, so no pressure. We selected a dog talking to a doctor trying to solve a crime. It can get weird and wonderful.

Wordplay

Now this was a lot of fun. You can either play by yourself or against someone. After selecting a genre, a passage of text appears on the screen missing a few crucial words. The race is on to fill in the blanks in the text. For every word you guess correctly you get some points. When the timer runs out, whoever has guessed the most words correctly wins. A great game to test your knowledge of words.

Make Meaning

The final interactive I want to mention is this one. Visitors can select a common phrase and learn all about its history and first use in literature.

Museum Information

The American Writers Museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. It is a completely accessible museum.

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