In Gospel. Musical Journey of Spirit and Hope, Museum Catharijneconvent shows the origins of gospel music within the African American community and the path the music genre took from churches in the United States to today’s worldwide popular culture. Although gospel originated in the first half of the twentieth century, many songs are much older. In this immersive exhibition, the visitor travels to the cradle of gospel music: spirituals. The songs later became a powerful non-violent tool in the fight for equal rights for black people in the US. And today, gospel is considered the source of numerous music genres such as soul, jazz, pop, hip-hop, and R&B.
The exhibition is divided into six themes: Oh Happy Day!, In Church and in Nightclubs, Spirituals, Gospel & Protest, Gospel: Source for Popular Music, and Gospel Lives On!. Each one of these themes highlights a different perspective on gospel. For our design, we wanted visitors to really feel these six perspectives. Gospel is mostly an immaterial subject: besides records, there are not many objects to put on display. Therefore, the exhibition heavily relies on audio, video, spatial elements, and graphic design.
Visitors entering the exhibition face a curved wallpaper of the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing Oh Happy Day!. Built-in TV’s show a video compilation of historical gospel footage, and an explosion of music give the immediate feeling of belonging. A cross-shaped light beam leads the way further into the exhibition. It becomes clear that here, music is the sole guide. Oh, happy day: a bath of harmonies, a musical baptism.
For In Church and in Nightclubs we designed a 35 meters long curtain that zigzags through the room. Visitors wander and wonder. The curtain resembles the storefront churches presented in this theme: through a storefront-like door opening the visitors enter a space where the self-made nature of these early black churches comes to life. A video showing the conflict between a pastor and nightclub owner (about whether gospel should be sung in nightclubs) is projected on the semi-transparent fabric, letting visitors view the debate from both perspectives. The moving images overlap in an untuned concerto, echoing the complexity of gospel’s history.
A light breeze brushes your face and makes you stop and stand still for a moment. The air suddenly feels thick, filled with history and meanings. Spirituals, the third theme, shows the slave origin of the genre. Together with Art in the Picture, we made a documentary with a spoken word performance by Gershwin Bonevacia, the city poet of Amsterdam. The set design is inspired by the cotton fields and church buildings of the pre-civil war United States. The fragility of the curtains contrasts with the heaviness of the emotions, rising from inside and growing all around, like a grieving storm. Percussionist Carlo Hoop leads Gershwin as he explains the meaning of spiritual songs. The video is viewed on an ultrawide canvas screen, making it a room-filling experience.
“We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.” The recent Black Lives Matter protests remind us that, like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, (institutional) racism is ever-present in our society. Gospel & Protest is designed as if the visitors participate during the March on Selma, with bright pink protest signs supporting artworks, TV’s, texts, and graphics. We swallow the lyrics and shout them out, over and over again. We Shall Overcome reverberates through the speakers, while Dutch hip-hop artist Typhoon shares his experience with racism and oppression. Throughout the exhibition, the museum’s windows introduce these kinds of reflective moments, be it interviews with inspiring experts of gospel music or context to important songs. This adds an extra informative layer to the rich history of the genre.
Gospel: Source for Popular Music shows the vast number of genres that are derived from gospel. With a collection of over 50 records from artists such as Kanye West, Simon & Garfunkel, and Mary Mary, visitors can sit back and enjoy the music as if they were in an old-fashioned record shop. A window graphic shows the roots of gospel music, as indexed by American ethnomusicologist Portia K. Maultsby. Ultimately, gospel manages to transcend the limitation of cultural sub-movements and the joint enjoyment of music ensures connection and togetherness.
Gospel is also very much alive in the Netherlands, both in churches and in popular culture. Sadly, this has been mostly unknown to the majority of the Dutch. For Gospel Lives On!, documentary maker Emma Lesuis made a video installation about gospel in the Netherlands. For the first time, the Dutch gospel culture is documented and regarded as valuable Dutch religious heritage. For each of the four videos, we designed graphic wallpapers making it a three-dimensional experience. Enter the first space and you’re in a concert hall, the second and third bring you back to church. The last one? Welcome to Paradiso, Amsterdam. And don’t forget the exciting encore in the glass bridge. Gospel lives on!