Voices of the Modern Museum: Malcolm O’Hagan of the American Writers Museum

By Kylie Sharkey

Malcom O’Hagan, and his museum, are distinct amongst his fellow panelists and their institutions. A retired engineer, O’Hagan describes himself, saying, “I’m black and white person…not a creative cell in my body.” And while he notes his passion for literature, his self-deprecating tone prevails, “I’m not a very good reader but I like book clubs because they have better readers than me.” Despite his playful put-downs, O’Hagan is undoubtedly a driven, innovative, and intellectual man as evidenced by his goal of creating the first ever American Writers Museum. Still in the stages of development, the American Writers Museum is set to open in Chicago in 2017.

O’Hagan hopes that his institution will, “help people understand the impact of writers on history”. This goal, however, is deceptively difficult. “Looking at book,” O’Hagan asserts, “is not very inspirational.” To demonstrate his point, he uses the Gutenberg Bible in the Library of Congress as an example. Displayed behind glass, the book, though monumentally significant, offers audiences little in the way of experience. To truly understand the artifact, O’Hagan argues that you need to know the context of the object, “tell me the story, take me from the manuscript to the printing press.” But how to best tell writer’s stories is a constant methodological conundrum—one which O’Hagan is determined to tackle.

According to the founder, modern museums should not be judged solely by the size of their collections but by their quality of their visitor’s experiences and the effectiveness of their presentation techniques. And while many institutions offer virtual versions of museum visits, O’Hagan exalts the importance of a physical site, “museums are three dimensional… I don’t get a lot of experience from looking at a screen. I get information, but not experience.” These sites, however, do not have to be necessarily unique. On the contrary, O’Hagan notes the benefits of franchise museums. For while his institution will offer Chicago an American Writer’s Museum, that does little for those who are unable to travel to visit the location. By moving away from collection-centric thinking, O’Hagan suggests that his museum, “could be duplicated in every city.”

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