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Inside a Museum and Library Dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut

The museum, located in Vonnegut’s hometown of Indianapolis, is a goldmine of relics to the writer’s life and career, including his reading glasses, Purple Heart, typewriter, and letters.

A picture of Kurt Vonnegut in his work space, part of the collection at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis. All images by the author for Hyperallergic.

INDIANAPOLIS — As Hazel, a character from the Kurt Vonnegut novel Cat’s Cradle observed: “I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers. But wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.” Though Vonnegut is often associated with the New England environs he made home as an adult, his roots lie in Indianapolis, and bread crumbs about his hometown are scattered throughout his funny, satirical, and abiding prose.

The museum is located in the Indiana Avenue historic district, once a center of Indy’s African-American population. The Madame Walker Theater is right across the street and under renovation, forming an important hub for a return to the cultural vibrancy of the neighborhood’s past.

The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis is a labor of love, and a monument to a writer who means an awful lot to a wide cross-section of people. Founder and CEO Julia Whitehead is a lifelong Vonnegut fan who moved to Indianapolis for work in 2001, conceived of the idea in 2008, and undertook to self-start the first dedicated museum space for the author. After a 2011 start-up in a temporary space and a successful $1.5 million fundraising campaign, the museum recently opened a permanent, renovated space to display its collection — which includes a number of Vonnegut family archives gifted to the organization through Whitehead’s long relationship with Vonnegut’s son, Mark.

Pieces of Vonnegut family history, donated to the KVML by Vonnegut’s children.
Vonnegut is known for his signature use of the Smith-Corona 2200 typewriter, on display at the museum.

“I just cold-called him at his pediatric office in Massachusetts,” said Whitehead, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “He said, ‘I’ll talk to you in about a month, let’s see where you are.’ And I just started reaching out to people.” The success of the museum project, in Whitehead’s view, is rooted in a diverse cohort of Vonnegut fans, who came out of the woodwork to help fund the project and even volunteer hands-on labor during the ongoing renovation effort in the three-floor building. Eventually convinced of the project’s sincerity, Mark Vonnegut and his siblings made the decision to donate a number of signature family treasures to the collection, including Kurt Vonnegut’s reading glasses, Purple Heart medal, letters, pictures, typewriter, and even the old icebox from his childhood home.

A replica of Vonnegut’s workspace is open to interact with, featuring a facsimile of his typewriter, rooster lamp, and the Thoreau quote he had on his desk: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Much like country singer Dolly Parton, Vonnegut manages to find fans on all sides of the political aisle, with a balance of forthright, salt of the earth language and gentle observational humor that tempers social satire and political commentary. While his seminal novel Slaughterhouse-Five is most often characterized as science-fiction (presumably for the backdrop of alien society and narrative construct of time travel), Vonnegut’s oeuvre on the whole is more surreal and satirical than truly science-based. Unlike more squarely sci-fi authors, Vonnegut rarely felt the need to ground his premises in mainstream science, rather using them as a jumping-off point for stories that center around fundamentally humanist concerns. Vonnegut characters tend to grapple with love, questions of conformity, and the place of the everyday man in the whirl of upward mobility, clash of nations, and particularly, wartime and its after-effects.

Vonnegut’s purple heart, awarded for his time in a WWII POW camp in Dresden. Vonnegut survived the bombing of the city because he was being kept underground, and was forced to excavate the ruins of the demolished city.
Vonngeut’s musings on war are an understandable byproduct of his personal circumstances, but perhaps also revelatory of the spirit of Indianapolis.

In this, Vonnegut reveals himself to be quite a Hoosier. Indianapolis was a major center of military airfields and training during WWII, and currently devotes more acreage than any other US city to honoring fallen soldiers — second only to Washington, DC, in the overall number of war memorials. Likewise, from Slaughterhouse-Five, to Armageddon in Retrospect, to Bluebeard, as well as various players in the short stories compiled in Welcome to the Monkeyhouse, Vonnegut continuously memorialized and fictionalized experiences of war — based on his own military service during WWII and his time in a POW camp in Dresden. The entire top floor of the KVML is dedicated to artifacts and analysis of Vonnegut’s wartime experiences and literary canon, including the Purple Heart awarded to the author for his time as a POW, pictures of Vonnegut as a soldier, and an extensive visual response to Slaughterhouse-Five by artist Lance Miccio, also a veteran. The exhibition, Slaughterhouse-Fifty, features 50 scenes from the novel accompanied by the excerpts that describe them, rendered by Miccio in shaky, evocative brushstrokes. The show celebrates the 50th anniversary of the novel’s debut.

Works by Lance Micco, installation view. Part of Slaughterhouse-Fifty currently on display.

The KVML is ultimately designed to be an active space and community center, so the ephemera of the author’s life is really just the backdrop for a series of programs, performances, and community activities. These programs tend to relate to the values that Vonnegut championed: suicide prevention, civil rights, support for teachers, humanism, freedom of speech, and a love of literature and reading.

Whether Indianapolis is the most Vonnegutian place, or Vonnegut is the most Indianapolic of writers, it is clear that his upbringing left a strong impression on the author, and shaped his life and work. As he exhorted the 1996 graduating class of Butler University during his commencement address: “Some of you won’t stay home. But please don’t forget where you came from. I never did.”

One of Vonnegut’s most trenchant observations graces the wall facing the museum’s parking lot.

Slaughterhouse-Fifty continues at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library through February 29.

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