How a Boston designer just created a museum of American writers
It was early 2010, and Malcolm O’Hagan needed help.
A retired manufacturing executive, he had recently begun the Herculean task of attempting to create a new national museum for American writers. What he had was a strong vision; inspired by a visit to the Dublin Writers Museum in Ireland, he sought to establish a grand and interactive space celebrating the US’s rich literary history.
What he didn’t have was somebody to bring that vision to life.
During an informational meeting with Smithsonian officials in Washington, D.C., O’Hagan mentioned as much. “And without hesitation,” he says, “they said, ‘You’ve got to get [Andrew] Anway out of Amaze Design in Boston.’”
Seven years later, with the 11,000-square-foot American Writers Museum opening earlier this week in downtown Chicago to significant fanfare, it has proven a fortuitous choice.
Billed as the first of its kind, the museum stands as a surprisingly accessible, intentionally un-stuffy trove celebrating the country’s wide-ranging writing forms, from novels to song lyrics, dating back centuries.
As reviews of the new museum have begun to come in, much praise has been aimed at the design work of the 62-year-old Anway, a gray-haired Arlington resident who bought into the project from the start.
“Reading something that’s exceptionally written gives you an emotional or visceral response,” said Anway, who joined the project shortly after sitting down for pints of Guinness with O’Hagan at The Black Rose. “We were really drawn to the idea of trying to do a museum that can convey that.”
Indeed, the final product is a sprawling, interactive space that O’Hagan describes as “a literary jewel box full of glittering gems.” Paying homage to writers from E.B. White to Tupac Shakur, the museum boasts a collection of exhibits highlighting the diversity of both style and genre, as well as the geographic, racial, and gender diversity of the country’s long lineage of writers.
Purists should find plenty to like, from the featured-works table, which allows users to explore in-depth 25 master works from a wide-range of authors, to the theme narration of NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan, among others.
But it’s also a nod to the unexpected.
In one area, visitors will find a collection of potted palms — this space also features increased temperature and humidity — inspired by the nature poetry of W.S. Merwin. The museum’s only current artifact, meanwhile, is the temporary installation of Jack Kerouac’s famed 120-foot-long scroll from “On the Road.”
Typewriters are stationed in one area, open to anyone compelled to do some writing of their own. At the start of each day, a member of the staff will write the first sentence of an original story, with each visitor invited to add their own sentence; the finished product will then be posted to the museum’s website.
“What [organizers] really saw from the get-go was you couldn’t approach this like something else,” said Carey Cranston, who has served as the museum’s president since last year. “You had to make something brand new.”
Anway’s foray into the world of museum design was a bit of a circuitous one.
A Clinton, N.Y., native, he initially enrolled at Boston College to study English but ended up dropping out after just one year. From 1981 through 1989, Anway went to work for Fidelity Investments, helping to oversee many of the company’s various expansion projects and eventually rising to vice president of design and construction.
After a decade or so, however, his interests had begun to evolve.
“After you’ve been responsible for overseeing construction of millions of square feet of office space, while that’s very needed and important, it stops being as intellectually interesting,” he says.
What he wanted was something that would blend both the intellectually stimulating process of conceptualization with the idea of devising physical, hands-on solutions. So in his mid-30s, he went back to school, this time to study history, and by the time he graduated, in 1992 from Boston College, the idea of museum work had begun to solidify in his mind.
In the years since, he has contributed to various national and international projects, including Dallas’s Perot Museum of Nature and Science and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
But the writers museum, he says, is unlike anything else he’s done.
Early on, organizers sought to focus on writers’ words rather than their artifacts. They established a seven-person “content leadership team,” which provided broad oversight and helped establish the museum’s overarching themes. Additionally, more than 40 subject matter experts were consulted, each with a specific focus.
Anway even sought the insight of local historian David McCullough, author of “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For,” who became a strong early proponent of the project.
By early 2015, the group had settled on a site, signing a lease for a space in downtown Chicago not far from the tourist-heavy Millennium Park. And despite the challenges, funding eventually came through, too. (All told, nearly $10 million in private funds were raised for the project).
On Monday, the fruits of their labor were revealed, as a collection of visitors — including Mayor Rahm Emanuel — gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially introduce the museum.
The space wouldn’t technically open to the public until the following day, but already, its design was drawing high praise from at least one high-profile guest.
“At no point is it boring,” said McCullough, who got his first look at the space this week. “That’s an extremely important quality. Sometimes stuffy old libraries about writers and so forth can be a little bit musty and a little dull.
“I just think it’s charming and delightful, and the guy who really deserves a lot of the credit is Andy Anway.”