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Five Cool Things About America’s First Writers Museum, Opening Soon

Showcasing 500 years of American literature, the Chicago museum will include immersive exhibits and rare treasures.

Illustration: Rose Blake

How do you capture 500 years of American literature in the age of e-readers? With a museum of touchscreens, of course.

That’s the conceit of the American Writers Museum, opening May 16 on the second floor of the building at 180 North Michigan Avenue. The first of its kind in the country, the museum showcases America’s literary past with multimedia installations—no yellowing manuscripts here. “It’s not about books under glass,” says president Carey Cranston, who, along with a 54-member curatorial team including 30 professors, three book critics, and the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, helped envision the new space. Here, five highlights.

1. Lessons in Chicago history

The museum boasts a room dedicated to local literary lights, with recordings by Studs Terkel and Gwendolyn Brooks and a digital map of landmarks, including the birthplace of Ebony and Jet, the original public library network, and every bookstore within the city limits.

2. Audio tours by lit experts

In the American Voices exhibit, virtual docents, including NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan and Northwestern English professor Ivy Wilson, narrate the biographies and works of 100 emblematic writers, from Abraham Lincoln to James Baldwin.

3. Sensory immersion

Anchoring the museum are 100 wall-mounted boxes that pull out to reveal literary ephemera—items you can touch, hear, or smell. Think: A woodsy aroma for Walden or fresh-baked cookies for Julia Child.

4. Masterworks in progress

See the pillars of American lit deconstructed in Anatomy of a Masterwork, an exhibit that breaks down the creation and legacy of iconic titles like “Sonny’s Blues” and Huck Finn with digital renderings of early manuscripts, critical reviews, and close readings.

5. Rare treasures

One place you’ll find an absence of screens: the Writer’s Room Gallery, which features a rotating collection of relics. First up? Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot On the Road scroll. Plus, Kerouac’s biographer, Dennis McNally, will give a lecture on May 25.

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