01 Mar 2017
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The Inside Story of the New American Writers Museum

A literary destination opens in Chicago
by Julia Hanna

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Mark Twain in front of his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri (photos courtesy of American Writers Museum)

Before he arrived at HBS, Jay Hammer (MBA 1979) was pursuing a PhD in literature at Johns Hopkins. Daunted by the increasingly narrow focus required to complete the degree, he turned to business. “Being able to apply a variety of skills to a broad scope of challenges felt like a dam breaking open,” says Hammer, now president and CEO of Theralogix, a nutritional supplement company he cofounded in 2002.

But Hammer’s love of reading never left him. Part of a “relatively heavy-going” book club, he met monthly to discuss the work of Nobel Prize winners, including Herta Müller and Kenzaburō Ōe, as well as more mainstream authors such as Michael Chabon and James Michener.

In a novel, that would be the perfect setup for what followed: Fellow book clubber Malcolm O’Hagan asked Hammer to lend his business savvy to help found a museum dedicated to American writers similar to the Dublin Writers Museum of O’Hagan’s native Ireland.

The museum, which includes a children’s books exhibit, encourages visitor engagement.

“In the United States we have a number of discrete, unrelated houses and centers dedicated to individual writers, but no single location celebrating the country’s rich, diverse literature,” Hammer says. He joined forces with O’Hagan and German-born Werner Hein to help plan and fundraise the vision into reality. Six years later, the American Writers Museum will open in late spring at 180 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, with Hammer serving as treasurer.

“I had been chair of Washington Performing Arts but knew nothing about museums and what it took to start one,” Hammer says, noting that the founders drew on planning documents for several recent museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “For a museum on our scale, it takes a lot of planning, but it doesn’t take a lot of staff,” he says. “And surprisingly, it doesn’t take a lot of money—we’ll bring this in at under $10 million, and that includes some reserve for the first several years of operation.” Funding came from private and public sources, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The “American Voices” exhibit presents 100 authors across 400 years through writer excerpts, criticism, and images.

While visitors might see a few artifacts, such as the 120-foot-long scroll on which Jack Kerouac typed On the Road, the museum’s spirit is much more interactive and participatory. Visitors can contribute a sentence to the ongoing “Story of the Day” exhibit, delve into 100 curated works of literature (from the Federalist Papers to newspaper columns to contemporary works of fiction), experience a holographic “waterfall” of projected words from stories and poems, and peek into the nooks and crannies of a “surprise bookshelf” to learn about an author or a literary work.

“This seems to be a particularly good time to remember that the United States was established as an idea, one that was explicitly argued about in speeches and articles, and then eventually given form by written documents that stated its values,” says Hammer. “Since then, generations of writers—whether they be poets or novelists, speechwriters or journalists—have embellished and shaped what America means. Understanding our writing is one way to understand what America is and can be in the future.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1979, Section E

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