The American Writers Museum: Database History Between Digital and Analog

By Curtis Russell

On its website’s home page, The American Writers Museum in Chicago bills itself “The First Museum of Its Kind In The Nation!” Though the website does not specify the museum’s “kind,” a visit to the museum itself reveals a space engaged in a complex negotiation with the history of US American letters. What makes the museum notable is less its subject, though, than the way it engages with that subject, through a mélange of the digital and the analog. This is a pragmatic solution to the problem of transforming an inherently flat, literary medium (the written word) into a three-dimensional, visual medium (the museum). More importantly, though, it is also an attempt to create what Steve Anderson in his article “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History” calls “database histories:” “that is, histories that comprise not narratives describing an experience of the past, but collections of infinitely retrievable fragments, situated within categories and organized according to predetermined associations.” (1) The combining of the digital and the analog allows the Museum to authentically engage with the primarily tactile, pre-digital history of its chosen subject while taking advantage of contemporary digital technologies, to help visitors envision the many possibilities opened up for the form by the digital. The result is an institution that upends “traditional” organizing principles in public-facing archives.

There are a few small exhibition areas where patrons can view archival materials on the walls, but the American Writers Museum is almost totally interactive. The museum is laid out in an easy-to-navigate rectangular space that circles the second floor of 180 N. Michigan Avenue, near Millennium Park. The left side of the first corridor highlights the writers themselves with a chronological timeline and intermittent video screens. The right side lists specific genres, with panels that turn around to reveal a sensory experience (smell, sound, etc.) related to the exemplar of that genre listed on the panel.


The author and his son, Xander, in the American Writers Museum, August 2018. Photo credit: Amanda Russell

This corridor illustrates the capaciousness of the subject, showing that there is more to letters than the fiction novel, and laying the historical and theoretical framework for the rest of the patron’s experience, which increases in recombinant possibilities.

Though the museum’s first corridor encourages engagement, a patron could pass through it and still take in its information with minimal or no physical interaction, as with “traditional” museums. However, the rest of the museum requires patron interaction to create meaning, converting the museum’s archival materials into what Anderson terms the “raw materials in infinitely reconfigurable patterns of revision and recontextualization” that characterize database histories. The museum’s stated mission is “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.” (2) This staid description is actually slightly misleading and could apply to almost any museum; here, the influence of American writers is not explored so much as enacted through the museum’s interactive exhibits. Some of the interactive digital exhibits include: an accretive database in which visitors vote for their favorite American writer;


Credit: Amanda Russell

large touchscreen tables that can accommodate up to four people at once, and which require the user to select a topic by its icon, an interesting subversion of the literary;


The author’s wife, Amanda. Credit (for this and all remaining photos, except where noted): Curtis Russell

and more touchscreen tables that allow users to compete in genre-specific “Mad Libs”-style games where they must choose the correct word to insert into a literary passage, or combine words into sentences, refrigerator-magnet style.


However, perhaps in acknowledgment of the fact revealed on an interactive sliding panel that, “Only 6% of Americans read digital books exclusively,”the digital is tempered by, and intermingled with, the analog in a way that does not imply the superiority of either. There are piles of books sitting around that patrons can read


Credit: Amanda Russell

and, most intriguingly, a bank of typewriters on which patrons are encouraged to write stories that build on the contributions of previous patrons. They can then either take the stories or pin them to the wall as part of an ongoing collaborative archive.

Not only does this connect patrons to the act of writing through a material process they may not have used for decades or, most likely, never used, it reminds them that the history of American letters is still being created. Most importantly, it enables forms of knowledge production “that defy both literary and historical conventions,” one of the key benefits of database histories, according to Anderson, not only creating new histories but reminding us that history itself is pliable and dynamic, subject to the new interpretations overlaid on it by each successive generation.



(1) Anderson, Steve. “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History.” Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities. Ed. Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 100-114.