Matt Donahue

Bowling Green State University Pop Culture Professor Matt Donahue has a photo exhibit called “The Amsterdam Sign Project,” simultaneously showing in Bowling Green at Grounds For Thought coffee shop and BGSU’s Jerome Library.

More than 850 business signs were photographed for a commercial archaeology photo art exhibit called “The Amsterdam Sign Project,” which is showing simultaneously in downtown Bowling Green and on campus at Bowling Green State University.

The photo exhibit is on display until the end of March at Grounds for Thought, 174 S. Main St., and on the first floor of the Jerome Library on campus.

“The Amsterdam Sign Project is a continuation of my research of the popular culture of the Netherlands and the country’s most well-known city, Amsterdam,” Pop Culture Professor Matt Donahue said. “The prints highlight a diverse vibrant city that is driven by small businesses, big businesses, tourism and international flare.”

Donahue said the photography project falls into the field of Commercial Archaeology, a branch of archaeological research and documentation of commercial businesses, ranging from vernacular commercial buildings to business signs and storefronts.

“It must be noted, that even with the pandemic and Covid happening, and the restrictions of traveling, and some restrictions to everyday life, that the show must go on. Life must carry on. Perhaps in a small way this photo exhibit will provide some relief to folks and they can see a part of Europe and specifically Amsterdam,” Donahue said.

Donahue has had a lifelong interest in business signs. With its unique urban landscape, the city is filled with business signs of all shapes and sizes.

Donahue took more than 3,000 photographs of business signs in the central city of Amsterdam. There were illuminated signs, neon signs, sculpted signs and storefront signs. The signs are very close together, with most businesses having very narrow street frontage, many are less than 10 feet wide.

He said he is hoping to show the cacophony of the images that compete for attention from the consumer’s eye, while competing for their money.

This project has taken many years and had three phases.

Donahue took the 3,000 photos over a week. Some of the photos had to be photographed during the day, and others, because of their lighting, had to be done at night. He said it was “quite exhausting and laborious.”

The collection consists of about 100 printed photographs for a total of 850 images of signs compiled in 12-inch by 12-inch frames. No sign photo is duplicated, so the separate exhibits are unique extensions of each other.

“They serve as an identification of a city, state or country and to me are beautiful. Through my creative and academic projects, I have traveled throughout the United States and different parts of the world photographing and documenting business signs along the way. While doing research in the city of Amsterdam … I realized that Amsterdam is one of the sign capitals of the world.”

The project was undertaken a year before the pandemic, so Donahue said it represents a slice of time, prior to the pandemic-related loss of many of those businesses.

“A part of the city can come to people here in this area through this photo exhibit,” Donahue said. “Perhaps in some way, this exhibition is of benefit to people in the community who may have traveled to Amsterdam and the Netherlands and give them a reminder of that country or for folks who might want to, seeing as we cannot travel overseas and people cannot go to Europe or Amsterdam.”

This exhibit follows “The Amsterdam T-Shirt Project,” Donahue’s 2018 award-winning documentary film about the Amsterdam T-shirt industry.