It may come as a surprise to you—it certainly did to us—but there is as yet no museum dedicated to writers in the United States. If all goes according to the plan of the board of The American Writers Museum, that will change by late 2016. In advance of the AWM opening in Chicago, artist Mia Funk has been tasked to create a group portrait of great American writers. In a new feature on The Open Bar, Mia will showcase her sketches of American writers young and old. Our interview with Mia about that process will appear later today.
In the meantime, Mia spoke with the President of the American Writers Museum, Malcolm O’Hagan, about the inspiration for the museum.
Mia Funk: Where did the idea for the American Writers Museum come from? How did your journey begin?
Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan: After visiting the Dublin Writers Museum I sought out the American counterpart and was surprised to learn that there is no national institution that celebrates the lives of the great American writers. The journey began after I discussed the concept of an American Writers Museum with a number of influential people in the literary community and received enthusiastic and unanimous encouragement to pursue the idea.
MF: How long has it been in the planning?
MO: The American Writers Museum Foundation was incorporated in 2010. Planning in earnest began late in 2010.
MF: Why an American Writers Museum? What do you feel makes this project so vitally important?
MO: Writers have a profound impact on our thinking. They influence our history, our culture, our daily lives. They reveal to us who we are. They educate and entertain us. Their works are the keystone of our cultural heritage. It is vitally important for young people to understand the role writers play in society. It is particularly so at a time when reading and writing are being so impacted by technology. I would love to see a day when people have the same reverence for great writers as they do for sports heroes and film stars.
MF: I noticed you titled the layout for the museum your First Edition Concept Plan. That’s interesting. It suggests that creating and laying out the different exhibitions resembles the process of planning a novel. So, how many different drafts did you go through?
MO: We are on our third draft of the Museum Concept. The First Draft envisions the ultimate museum as a large institution comparable to an art museum housed in an iconic building. The Second Draft, and the Third one that we are currently working on, focus on the first phase of the museum which will be housed in a building in Downtown Chicago. This is what we refer to as the “First Edition”. At the outset we received prudent advice to develop the museum in stages, as has been typical for many cultural institutions.
MF: Have there been many difficult decisions in terms of choosing one writer’s works over another?
MO: Choices are always difficult. The authors featured in the concept plans are strictly illustrative. We now have several curatorial teams at work deciding which authors and works to feature in the various galleries in the First Edition. A key feature of the American Writers Museum will be its ability to feature many authors and works through changing exhibits. The museum will be theme based, and the exhibits will be designed in a way that will allow us to show how different authors addressed these themes over time.
MF: But what’s wonderful about the museum is that it will be a never-ending story that evolves over time. I like the whole interactive principal and the central museum tables which will allow visitors to ask questions and post quotes. I think it really reflects the way we read today. It’s not a passive experience.
MO: I am glad that we are developing the museum now and not 30 years ago. The whole concept of what a museum should offer to visitors has changed, and the technology is now available to engage visitors in totally new interactive ways. The ability to “do” something as opposed to just “looking” greatly enriches the visitor experience. And the new technology makes it easy to change content, to pose new questions, to feature different works, to tell different stories.
MF: Anyone I’ve mentioned the museum to has said what a wonderful idea it is and are sort of puzzled why a museum like this doesn’t already exist. It does seem absurd that America has so many museums devoted to fine art–an activity which really doesn’t touch a lot of people’s lives–but in a country composed of so many immigrants and children of immigrants, where stories have played such a part in remembering our pasts and unifying us, that it has taken us so long to honor our writers collectively.
MO: I was amazed too when I found that we do not have a museum dedicated to American Literature. But happily that is about to change. We have so many wonderful stories to tell. We are a species of story tellers.
MF: I can only imagine to get the ball rolling on this project––with your background in manufacturing and engineering*––you must have realised what a massive undertaking it was. What kind of surprises have you met along the way?
MO: When I embarked upon this mission I made a ten year commitment. Nothing worth doing is easy if you want to do it right. I am experienced enough to know that things generally take much longer than we would like, and that the task is more difficult than anticipated.
MF: Can you tell us a little about the key permanent exhibits?
MO: The structure and themes of the museum will be fixed, but much of the content will change in order to allow us to feature a wide range of authors and writings. The Main Hall will serve as a “Hall of Fame”. As you would expect, it will feature the canonical and award winning writers. Shaping America will feature the writings that have molded our history and culture and continue to do so. Creating an American Literature will feature writers who broke with European literary traditions to create an “American” voice. We Will Be Heard will feature minority and immigrant writers who had to fight to get their story heard. Of course there will be areas where the different themes converge and build on each other. The other galleries are self evident. I would like to emphasize the American Writers Museum will be “Story Telling” institution where artifacts will play a much smaller role than in a traditional museum.
MF: Presently, what are the museum’s current goals? For example, do you have a dream exhibit?
MO: The whole museum is a dream.
MF: In terms of upcoming acquisitions, which archives or manuscripts is the museum seeking to acquire?
MO: At the outset we set a policy that the AWM will not duplicate what others are already doing effectively. Nor do we want to compete unnecessarily with other literary institutions. Consequently we do not envision the AWM as a research institution, as an archival institution, as a collections based institution or as an award making institution since all of these functions are already being performed admirably by others. The AWM will be the “Presentation” arm of the literary community.
MF: Can you describe some of the programs/exhibitions you’ll have for young people?
MO: One of the galleries is the Children’s Room which will be fun and engaging. While the AWM will sponsor extensive programming, the details have not yet been developed. We have a small exhibit featuring four Chicago authors – Brooks, Hansberry, Terkel and Wright – traveling to many neighborhoods throughout Chicago.
MF: I see your Power of the Word online exhibition has reached out to readers, political leaders and writers asking them about their favorite books.
It’s particularly interesting the question you asked authors: “Which works by American writers should world leaders read to help them gain a better understanding of America?” Which works would you yourself recommend? And which works received the most recommendations?
MO: One book I would recommend to foreign leaders (and to everyone for that matter) is Lincoln at Gettysburg – The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills. This book tells us what America is all about.
MF: It’s interesting that a part of the museum will be devoted to political writing.
MO: We are a nation founded on political documents.
MF: You were born in Sligo, “Yeats Country”. And Ireland is also well known as a country of great writers. Was reading/storytelling a big part of your life growing up?
MO: Unfortunately I did not get to engage with literature until I went to college, and then to a very limited extent as I was an engineering student.
MF: Which books would you say most affected your thinking about the world?
MO: My thinking constantly evolves as I read new books. Isn’t that an important function of books!
MF: What do you feel books can do that no other medium can?
MO: For me books are a medium that allows me to concentrate and contemplate. I value the content and not the container, and I find a book to be a very friendly container.
MF: As consciousness evolves through our increasing dependence on devices, it seems now more than ever that novels, poetry, playwriting can provide a transcendent experience as counterpoint to all our daily distractions.
MO: I believe this to be true as it has been in the past.
MF: With more people being involved with video and blogging, there seems to be a rise in direct, less stylized forms of storytelling. Will there be exhibits in the museum devoted to oral storytelling? Screenwriting? Will the museum have exhibits addressing 21st century developments in narrative?
MO: Absolutely on all accounts. The museum has to be relevant and must stay so. I am happy to see the resurgence in oral story telling through recorded books which I listen to all the time. As a young lad I was enchanted by stories and plays on the radio. I would much prefer to hear a poet recite than to read the poem to myself. The AWM docents will be called “Story Tellers”.
MF: So what you’ve created seems to be much more than a museum. It’s actually a space geared to engage visitors’ creativity and imaginations.
For a long time people, including prominent writers like Philip Roth, have been predicting the end of the novel. What are your thoughts on that?
MO: How many times have we heard predictions of the end of the world!
Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan is retired from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association where he served as President and CEO from 1991 to 2006. He served on the Board of the National Association of Manufacturers and was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council of Manufacturing Associations. He is a past President of the Washington Industrial Roundtable. Malcolm served in the Carter and Reagan administrations as Executive Director of the U.S. Metric Board. Earlier in his career he held management positions at Bendix Corporation and the position of Senior Scientific Officer at the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards in Ireland. Malcolm was born in Ireland and raised in “Yeats Country” in County Sligo. He holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from The National University of Ireland. He obtained his D.Sc. from The George Washington University in Washington D.C. which honored him with its Distinguished Alumni Award.
Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at the École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. Her work has received many awards & nominations, including a Prix de Peinture (Salon d’Automne de Paris), Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize, Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, KWS Hilary Mantel Short Story Prize, Doris Gooderson Prize, Momaya Prize & Celeste Prize. Her paintings have been shown at the Grand Palais and are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum. She is currently completing a novel and a collection of linked short stories. Catch her on Twitter: @miafunk.