Word on the Street: American Writers Museum Opens in Chicago

The Word Waterfall at the American Writers Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

It’s quite literally one of a kind. Though a city like Chicago could rest on its laurels museum-wise, with a glittering crown of over 60 institutions to its  name, the city of Big Shoulders once again works just a little bit harder.  This time, it’s to celebrate an art not yet singularly celebrated in any institution in the US- that of the written word. Yesterday’s grand opening ceremony for the American Writers Museum wasn’t just unique for Chicago, but for the nation as a whole.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought his own well-wishes for the museum, as well as those on behalf of the Obamas and George and Laura Bush. Photo by Marielle Shaw. 

As was fitting for a national first, the ribbon cutting was itself a prestigious affair, with the museum hosting special guests like Mayor Rahm Emanuel as well as writers like Stuart Dybek and guest of honor, David McCullough. Letters congratulating the city and the museum board itself were read to the crowd of attendees, including high praise from both Barack and Michelle Obama and George and Laura Bush on honoring the written word and the freedom of expression it brings. At the same time, the museum took time to celebrate and inspire young authors, with two young girls from 826 Chi sharing short pieces at the ceremony.


Stuart Dybek, well known for his Chicago-rooted stories and poems, speaks at the opening of the American Writers Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.


David McCullough, Yale alum, Pulitzer Prize Winner, historian and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, sits down to demonstrate proper use of the typewriters on display and leave the museum a memento of his attendance at the opening. Photo by Marielle Shaw.


826 Chi participants read some of their work at the ribbon cutting. American Writers Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

And though the museum, which resides on the second floor of the 180 N. Michigan building, isn’t as expansive as Stanley Field Hall, a surprising amount is packed into its confines. The museum is well laid out, with clean lines, easy flow between rooms and themes, and visually arresting centerpieces like the waterfall of words and the beautiful, colorful and cozy children’s literature room.

One of the corners of the Children’s Lit room at the American Writers Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

It’s part writer’s workshop, part library with books and comfy chairs tucked away in less travelled corners. The American Writers Museum is high tech, with plenty of opportunities to interact, but simple in its aesthetic and set-up, too.


One of the main halls at the American Writers Museum.. Photo by Marielle Shaw.





Interchangeable author features in one room at the American Writers Museum allow for quick changes and spotlights. Photo by Marielle Shaw.


An interactive “magnetic poetry” table in a common area of the American Writer’s Museum invites inspiration. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

One thing that’s also absolutely clear is the museum’s dedication to making all voices heard.  One could not question the dedication of the museum’s founders to diversity, as the walls are plastered with poetry, protests, lyrics and epics without any backing away from issues of race, gender, orientation or political leaning.  This is a place to revel in the written word, to celebrate free speech, and to learn to use your own words well and wisely, not to censor or obscure. The museum innately embraces what is one of our greatest freedoms and we can only applaud that.

And though its doors just opened, the American Writers Museum has shot out of the gates with a full spring and summer of events for the community of readers, writers and curious tourists.  There will be music, signings, kid’s activities and even a Printers Row Lit Fest preview lineup in store for visitors before we’re through June, and plenty more to do, including writer’s workshops with local authors, to follow.  To boot, the museum has a small but quite interesting gift shop, with everything from literary gift oddities to stylish swag and bags.

There are books from floor to ceiling celebrated at the American Writer’s Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

For its opening temporary exhibits, AWM presents The Beat Journey: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which features an original scroll manuscript by the author himself, as well as more information on the process and life of Kerouac as he wrote, and Palm: All Awake in the Darkness, a beautiful, artistic tribute to the work of American poet W.S. Merwin. Both exhibits run through October, with the Kerouac exhibit finishing out the month on October 26.

If you were or are a bookworm or writer, you’ll feel at home at this new museum. If you’re not, you may find yourself more inspired to let your own voice be heard. We’re proud to add this museum to our list of Chicago treasures and highly recommend checking it out even in its infancy. Just a short jaunt from the theater district and a neighbor to the Chicago Cultural Center, it’s in good company with some of Chicago’s most memorable sights, and we hope it far exceeds its expected 120,000 visitor goal for the year.  You can check it out Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 4 pm, with special late hours on Thursdays (til 8 pm). Admission is $12 for adults, with students and seniors priced at $8 for admission, and children 12 and under free. For even more information on the new museum, click here.

Marielle Bokor
Marielle Bokor