• New Smithsonian museum features music from Baylor’s Black Gospel Restoration Project

    Baylor at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture

    In less than a decade, Baylor professor Robert Darden’s mission to preserve black gospel music for future generations has grown from the basement of Moody Memorial Library to the Smithsonian Institution.

    This Saturday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum’s anticipated 20,000+ visitors this weekend — which includes such dignitaries as President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, as well as members of Congress and the Supreme Court — will find among the museum’s permanent exhibits one housing materials from Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP).

    Two years ago, the Smithsonian chose selections from the BGMRP to be part of “Musical Crossroads,” the museum’s permanent exhibition on the history and impact of African American music. The partnership is an amazingly natural fit for a project rooted in humble beginnings. Since it was launched in 2008 in the library basement, the BGMRP has processed nearly 2,000 rare pieces of music in record and tape form, recording the donated or loaned music to preserve it digitally.

    Darden, a journalism, public relations and new media professor whose love of gospel music began as a child, realized that much of this culturally significant and historic music was available only on old records — and was in danger of disappearing forever. In an impassioned 2005 New York Times essay, he wrote, “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music. It would be a sin.” Philanthropist Charles Royce agreed, and his donation helped Darden form the BGMRP to perform a “search-and-rescue operation” to save the music.

    At the Smithsonian exhibit, visitors can click on a link to hear “Old Ship of Zion” by The Mighty Wonders, a song preserved by the BGMRP. (“Old Ship of Zion” is significant enough to Darden that he used a line from the song, “nothing but love in God’s water,” as the title of one of the two histories of black gospel music he has authored.) Other recordings from the BGMRP are expected to be added to the exhibit in the coming months.

    Darden and Baylor Vice President for Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries Pattie Orr attended an advance showing of the museum earlier this week. Darden called it “an emotional highlight of my life.”

    “When you mention the name ‘Smithsonian’ in conjunction to something you do, it’s like that thing suddenly becomes endowed with a magical glow. It becomes empowered,” says Darden. “For Baylor University and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project to forever be associated with the Smithsonian put a permanent stamp of approval on what we’re doing. It confirms that the top historians and top archivists in the world value our contribution; that what we’re doing is important, than it matters, that it is precious and priceless and irreplaceable. It doesn’t get much better than that!”

    Sic ’em, Bob Darden and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project!

    [Photo courtesy Steve Orr/The BU Libraries Digital Collections Blog]