Hemingway Museum fighting for a future

Although most Oak Parkers know about the significance of Oak Park in Ernest Hemingway’s life, many have yet to visit the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum. Hemingway’s legacy has helped Oak Park become the culture hub it is today. However, just like many other small museums, the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum has struggled to remain afloat during the pandemic.
The colorful Queen Anne home on Oak Park Avenue is visited by people from all over the globe, some of whom, according to Keith Strom, the Executive Director of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, learned English by reading Hemingway’s novels. Tours tell the story of Hemingway’s experiences in Oak Park and of his eccentric family. The museum also strives to support local artists by holding writing contests, hosting concerts and plays, and giving scholarship money.
With 40 percent to 50 percent of their visitors being international and in-person tours no longer being permitted starting March 15, the museum had to think outside of the box.
“We had been talking about doing a virtual tour, and that just never seemed to be a priority. (Now) we have this virtual tour that we can keep running forever,” said volunteer coordinator Carla Mayer. “The other thing we did was we started a walking tour, so we could be outside with people and show all the places around town related to Hemingway. In a weird way, it pushed us forward as far as developing some additional content programs.”
The virtual tours combine photographs and video with live narration from a volunteer. “It took a lot of work to get what we felt met our standards because we wanted it to reflect what an incredible house this is,” said Mayer.
“In some ways, (the virtual tour) is almost better,” said Strom. “Because if you’re in person, you only see 10 percent of what’s in that room, whereas with the virtual tour, we intersperse slides to give you more perspective. It might be images of that room back in 1900 or it might be other things that relate to it or whatever.
“But at the same time, you’re getting a live narrated discussion. The docent talking to you is live. They can answer any question you have.”
On the other hand, virtual visitors miss the happy vibe of the house. Although Hemingway would struggle with mental illness later in life and end up committing suicide, the first six years of his life were spent in the vibrant victorian home in the company of his unique and colorful family.
Hemingway, who wrote for OPRF’s school newspaper in the 1910’s, was greatly affected by his experiences in Oak Park. While his father was the outdoorsy type, Hemingway’s mother was a musician, opera singer, teacher, and suffragette. At a time where it was odd for wealthy women to work, she made significantly more money than her husband.
“She was very opinionated. She was a diva,” said volunteer Susan Mosher. “She was a performer and a star, but she wanted the best for her family. Here was a late 19th century woman who was charting her own course and encouraging that in her children.”
The same atmosphere and life is present in the home today. While the tour revolves around the family’s story, Mosher said that some people just want to walk around the beautiful and historic home. For Mayer, she especially feels the happiness in Hemingway’s mother’s music room.
“It always feels like a happy room to me,” said Mayer. “Sometimes I like to imagine there’s still music in the walls. There’s definitely a vibe to being here that I think you can’t get from the virtual tour.”
Over the summer, the museum was able to begin in-person tours again, however, much less frequently and at 25 percent capacity. As of Nov. 14, they have momentarily stopped giving in-person tours due to the rise of COVID-19 cases.
The museum relies on revenue generated during the summer to help subsidize the other months. In October, Strom realized the museum had not generated enough money from virtual and in-person tours to get them through the year. “We realized we needed to do something different. And so that’s when we created the GoFundMe,” said Strom.
The GoFundMe has been very successful; they’re already two thirds of the way to their goal of $75,000.
“Things are going well. And I think hopefully, they’ll continue,” said Strom. “But if we hadn’t (been successful with the GoFundMe), there would have been discussions; do we close the house? But the hope here is that we will remain, keep our momentum and be able to keep things open.”
History buffs and literary nerds can volunteer at the museum as greeters (in normal times) or as tour guides. To help out or learn more about the Hemingway family, take a look at these resources:

If you want to go on a virtual or in-person tour yourself, visit https://www.hemingwaybirthplace.com/daily-public-admissions.
To donate to the GoFundMe, visit http://savehemingway.com/.
To volunteer, visit https://www.hemingwaybirthplace.com/volunteer.
To learn more about Hemingway’s time in Oak Park, visit https://www.hemingwaybirthplace.com/hemingway-and-oak-park.