Digital Grand Panorama - New Bedford Whaling Museum

Digital Grand Panorama

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is not only a superlative – the Longest Painting in North America! – it is in fact a rich tapestry of fascinating narratives inherent to our mission which delight, inform and, in this case, entertain.

Digital Grand Panorama

The Panorama depicts the story of American whaling and cultural contacts born of this global industry now ingrained in the unique multi-cultural landscape that makes New Bedford.

Digital Grand Panorama

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is not only a superlative – the Longest Painting in North America! – it is in fact a rich tapestry of fascinating narratives inherent to our mission which delight, inform and, in this case, entertain.

Digital Grand Panorama

The Panorama depicts the story of American whaling and cultural contacts born of this global industry now ingrained in the unique multi-cultural landscape that makes New Bedford.

DIGITAL GRAND PANORAMA

Every museum has its iconic treasures, which are often qualified by superlatives: the oldest, the biggest, the smallest, the grandest, the rarest, the best example of its type. If a museum is lucky, these artifacts are perfectly befitting the mission of the institution in theme, historical relevance and regional connection.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is not only a superlative – the Longest Painting in North America! – it is in fact a rich tapestry of fascinating narratives inherent to our mission which delight, inform and, in this case, entertain. The Panorama depicts the story of American whaling and cultural contacts born of this global industry now ingrained in the unique multi-cultural landscape that makes New Bedford. It is also, however, a rare extant example of commercial enterprise, designed to exploit the panorama craze of the 19th century with tales of the high seas.

The panorama as a mode of entertainment was developed in Europe in the late 18th century and subsequently made its way to the United States after demonstrating its commercial potential abroad. A “panorama” as defined by Robert Barker, who patented this exhibition style, means “all view”. He felt that spectators should feel like they were “really on the very spot” of the theme of the exhibition, that they should feel as if they were part of the scene. This was achieved by encircling and thereby visually immersing the audience with enormous paintings of exotic places, famous battle scenes, and cityscapes.

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Explore the digital version of The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage 'Round the World with expanded access to the history and narratives of Purrington and Russell’s Grand Panorama.

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Section of Roll 1 from "The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage 'Round the World" by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington. Now viewable online via the Whaling Museum's Digital Grand Panorama on arcgis.com.

The illusion succeeded through the sheer scale of the panoramas, which could be well over 400 feet long and 40 feet high, and their dramatic theatrical style of pictorial representation. Panoramas were typically installed in round buildings, known as cycloramas, specifically designed for their exhibition, and they would run for a set period of time much like a play. Their exceeding popularity and the limitations of booking and performing these works in expensive permanent structures led to the advent of the moving panorama, which was often much longer but inherently mobile and cheaper to produce. These harbingers of cinema were not static, and were not, strictly speaking, true panoramas as one could not see the whole thing at one time. Rather than the audience moving or turning through a space to experience the cycloramic panorama, moving panoramas were mounted on several spools and displayed on large custom structures that scrolled through the panorama much like celluloid film. The “panorama” could then be displayed in any large room or theater and would often be accompanied by a narrator, music, lighting, and other theatrics. As a spool came to its end, there would be a short intermission while the spool changed, similar to a reel to reel film of theatrical length. These performances could be as short as a night or last several weeks, traveling from city to city by rail or ship throughout Europe and the United States. The moving panoramas offered a different experience than static ones, the latter of which was often a particular moment in time to be seen all at once. Moving panoramas allowed a journey through space and time and could embody the more linear narrative of an expedition or voyage for an entirely different experience.

Panoramas spoke to an audience whose appetite for the exotic and the spectacular was whetted by increasing exposure to distant places through popular literature, painting, architecture, and fashion, in a medium that landed somewhere in between fine art and mass culture. Fueled by depictions and tales of the farthest reaches of Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Arctic, and the Middle East of Napoleon to David Livingston to Captain James Cook to the Franklin expedition, audiences keen on the authentic experience but without the means nor desire to travel far afield could be transported to another world and time through the spectacle of the panorama.

The illusion of being “on the spot” was greatly enhanced by the authenticity of the artist’s first-hand knowledge and the quality of the narrative. The Purrington-Russell panorama’s authority would have been justified by Benjamin Russell’s personal experience as a whaleman and his attention to details that, at least in the ports of New England, would have been noted and appreciated, such as house flags of known vessels and architectural details of ports of call. Benjamin Russell spent 42 months (1841-1844) on a whaling voyage aboard the Kutusoff before he began his career as a commercial artist in earnest. During the voyage, Russell traveled to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, became steeped in whaling culture, and trained himself to paint landscapes, whaleships, and whaling scenes. As a skilled artist and detailed observer with a broad range of both practical and business experience, he and his partner, sign painter Caleb Purrington (1812 - 1876) captured details of the whaling voyage seldom encountered in any other visual representations of the industry.

Painted in water-based paint on cotton sheeting, the Panorama is over 1275 feet long and 8 feet high separated onto four spools. Its journey begins in New Bedford harbor and travels the route typical of Yankee whalers in the mid-19th century, landing spectators in the Azores, Cabo Verde, Rio de Janeiro, and numerous ports of the Pacific. At one time there was an additional section that was lost before the artifact came to the Museum 100 years ago. Based on the beauty and detail of other ports of call represented, the scenes of New Zealand and the remote island of St. Helena were undoubtedly spectacular.

The Panorama recreated the experience of a whaling voyage for America’s popular audience, detailing the remarkable sights that whalemen were privileged to see. In the Cincinnati and Boston reviews of Russell’s Panorama exhibition, it was said that a great number of old whaling captains praised its accuracy and subsequently advised that “landsharks” could glean from it a very good idea of a sea voyage, without the sickness.” While Russell strived for authenticity, as did other performers of the 19th century he was not above inserting elements from popular culture for dramatic effect, including the widely known tale of the sinking of the Essex by an enormous sperm whale, an event preceding his own voyage by 20 years and the real-life inspiration for Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale of 1851. Rather than detracting from the authentic experience, it can be assumed it only added to the relevance of the narrative by connecting the work to well-known events in popular culture.

Due to the very nature of its design, medium, and performance execution, the Panorama suffered tears, burns, and wearing of its painted surface after one hundred and fifty years of travel and exhibition. Following a conservation project plan that commenced decades ago, the Museum completed a major restoration of the artifact in 2017. This year marks the first time in generations that the public will be able to see the Panorama in its (almost) entirety, at the historic Kilburn Mill in New Bedford’s south end. The Panorama will never be displayed as it was originally intended, as rolling through the painting would again put the object at risk of damage. It will instead be installed as four massive static paintings, each between 300-400 feet long, on free-standing infrastructures under the careful watch of the Museum’s conservation and curatorial teams. The role of the audience will therefore be reversed. Rather than the Panorama moving before the visitor, it is the audience who will move past the Panorama, dwarfed by its immense scale.

More About the Panorama

On View Exhibit

A Spectacle in Motion: The Experience. Watch the Panorama scroll by in a life-sized digital format projected in a full theatrical setting.

Audio Tour

Dive deeper into the scenes and stories told throughout the Panorama. Walk the Panorama and the tour takes you around the world through the eyes of a whaler.

Exhibition Catalog

This two-volume publication dives into the detail and narrative of the Panorama and allows people to quite literally hold the entire artwork in the palm of their hands.

Conservation Spotlight

Created when giant paintings unrolled in front of a paying audience, this Panorama survives as a nationally important artifact of American culture.

Past Exhibit

A Spectacle in Motion: The Original. The exhibition presented America’s longest painting. All 1,275 feet of the Panorama was on exhibit to awe visitors. This was the first time in generations the entire Panorama could be seen by the public.

WGBH News

Restoring North America’s Longest Painting by Bob Seay, January 5, 2018.

AP News

A whale’s tale: Longest painting in North America restored b

Press Release

New Bedford Whaling Museum awarded $180,000 for restoration of famous panorama – America’s longest painting by Gayle Hargreaves