Combine the artistic sensibilities of the Bayeux Tapestry with the epic scope and milieu of Moby-Dick, add a dash of Barnumesque showmanship, and you get The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage’ Round the World. A set of five canvas scrolls painted about 1848—each eight-and-a-half feet tall and together measuring more than 1,275 feet in length—the Panorama depicts the vistas seen on the journey of a Yankee whaling ship as it traversed the globe from its home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, passing exotic locales such as Rio de Janeiro, Cape Horn, and the “Fejee islands,” as well as spectacles that include shipwrecks, breaching sperm whales, and an erupting volcano. The creation of two New Bedford–area artists, Benjamin Russell—who had spent forty-two months aboard a whaler earlier in the decade—and Caleb Purrington, the Panorama was presented on stages from Boston to Saint Louis in a sort of proto-cinematic format: mounted on spools and cranked along to the accompaniment of music, lighting effects, and narration.
After a long period of study, repair, conservation, and digitization, the New Bedford Whaling Museum is exhibiting the extant sections of the Panorama in their entirety for the first time since the 1960s. (Four of the scrolls were donated to the Old Dartmouth Historical Society—the museum’s precursor—in 1918. The fifth, depicting the last leg of the voyage, had gone and is still missing.) The exhibition has two parts. The original canvases—too delicate ever to be displayed in action again—are presented at full length in Kilburn Mill, a repurposed 1903 textile factory in the town’s South End, until October 8. A life-size video projection at the museum itself that attempts to re-create the nineteenth-century theatrical experience (though audiences can watch from the decks of the institution’s centerpiece, a half-scale replica of the 1826 whaler Lagoda) will be on view until 2021.
A Spectacle in Motion: The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World • New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts • Original painted canvases on view at Kilburn Mill to October 8 • Digital video presentation on view at the museum through 2021 • whalingmuseum.org