After the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library opened in a donated storefront in the author’s hometown of Indianapolis in 2011, it soon became clear that the museum couldn’t stay there long term. Popular events and collections—which include Vonnegut’s Purple Heart, his drawings and a replica of his typewriter—simply need more space so when the institution’s lease expired in February of this year, staff decided not to renew. After several months without a home, the museum is now preparing to open in a permanent space, as Susan Salaz reports for Atlas Obscura.
After signing a purchase agreement for a new property on Indiana Avenue back in March, the museum was able to raise the $1.5 million needed to acquire the building. According to Salaz, the new iteration of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library opened for a “sneak preview” on September 22, just in time for the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week; at the museum, though, the event is called “Freedom to Read Week” because, as the museum notes on its website, “some folks thought we were celebrating the banning of books!” Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five ranks among the most frequently banned literary classics, and the author was an outspoken advocate against censorship.
Other features of the new museum include a re-creation of Vonnegut’s writing studio, an exhibition on Vonnegut and jazz—he was a fan—and a “freedom of expression exhibition,” where visitors can find “the 100 books most frequently banned in libraries and schools across the nation,” Salaz writes separately in the Indianapolis Monthly.
Julia Whitehead, founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library sought to create a space Vonnegut would love. “He always wanted Indianapolis to be more progressive, more inclusive and [for] organizations like public schools and public libraries to be well funded, partly because he had such a great experience here,” Whitehead tells Salaz.
Vonnegut was born in the city in 1922, the third child of a well-to-do family with deep roots in Indianapolis. The Vonneguts grew wealthy selling hardware in Indianapolis, and both his father and grandfather were architects who designed a number of the city’s landmarks.
When the Great Depression hobbled his father’s business, this “radical change in economic circumstances caused Kurt Sr. virtually to give up on life and Edith [Vonnegut’s mother] to become addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs,” according to the museum. Vonnegut was forced to leave private school and transferred to Shortridge High School—where he wrote for the student newspaper. Later in life, he would fondly recall his public school education. “I simply never unlearned junior civics,” he once said. “I still believe in it.”
In 1943, Vonnegut enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and was captured by the Germans during WWII. He survived the Dresden bombings in an underground meat locker at a P.O.W. camp—an experience that would shape his famed 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five. After the war, Vonnegut attended the University of Chicago and eventually settled with his family in Cape Cod. But always remembered his childhood home—sometimes with love, sometimes with contempt. In Breakfast of Champions the Indianapolis stand-in Midland City “lampooned the placelessness of Midwestern life.” And yet, Vonnegut didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, distance himself from the city. “All my jokes are Indianapolis,” he once said. “All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
Ultimately, Whitehead tells Salaz, he “valued his life growing up [in Indianapolis].” And she maintains that the city is the right place for a museum and library celebrating his legacy. “It should be here,” Whitehead says, “because this is the need.”