On one of his many visits to Dublin, Malcolm O’Hagan—who grew up in the west of Ireland and now lives in Washington, D.C.--stopped in at the Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square. The charming museum is in a refurbished Georgian house, and it contains such literary curios as Brendan Behan’s union card and Samuel Beckett’s telephone.
"And I started to wonder where the U.S. counterpart was, and I found out that it doesn’t exist," O’Hagan said. So for the last year, he has worked on creating a national writers museum here in the United States.
Reaction to the idea, he said, has been not just positive, but downright enthusiastic. He has an executive team in place, and an advisory council, and next up is deciding location.
Right now odds are good that it might be Chicago. But knowing that didn’t stop Minnesota Historical Society acquisitions librarian Patrick Coleman from inviting O’Hagan to check out the Twin Cities anyway. "I just thought, well, I’ve got a table at the [Minnesota] Book Awards, and an empty seat, so I’ll invite him," Coleman said.
O’Hagan spent last weekend touring the Loft, and the U, and libraries, and meeting with publishers and librarians, and going for a run along Summit Avenue, past the homes of Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (And Garrison Keillor.)
"Everything about it was hugely engaging and enjoyable," O’Hagan said. "The Twin Cities, with its corporate structure and support for the arts, is a very viable candidate."
O’Hagan trained as an engineer, but worked in marketing and business. He’s always loved writers, and writing. ‘I think it’s an Irish thing, partly,” he said. “I grew up in the west of Ireland, in Yeats country beneath Ben Bulben’s head, and spent many a summer day on the isle of Innisfree. I was in Sligo the day they re-interred Yeats in the cemetery near the town. I’ve always loved Oscar Wilde, and Joyce, and was initially interested in Irish writers. But after reading Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and other American writers I really began appreciating American writers.”
And now that he’s retired, “I have a chance to really indulge my passion, which is literature and books.”
O’Hagan’s vision for an American museum would differ from the Irish model. He’s thinking of something interactive, with lectures and traveling exhibits and technology, as opposed to artifacts in glass cases.
He knows that he’d like to locate the museum in a large city in the Midwest. “It should preferably be a destination city, a convention city, a city with a rich literary tradition, friendly to culture, with good philanthropic backing.” Right now Chicago is in the lead—he’s met with the mayor and other officials several times and says they’re interested. But nothing is set in stone.
He’s considering existing buildings for the start (and toured St. Paul’s beautiful James J. Hill Library), and hopes to eventually build a state of the art modern museum. “Our vision is a really fine new building that does honor to the writers and their works,” he said. “We don’t want to do this in a half-baked way. It’s not worth doing unless we create an institution that creates respect for literature.”
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