Museum restores North America's longest painting Restorations of the 1848 “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World.” (New Bedford Whaling Museum/Wiki Commons)
Museum restores North America's longest painting

“Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” is a big painting. It measures 1,275 feet long. It is eight-and-a-half feet tall.

It was created in 1848. It was painted by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington. It captures all aspects of a whaling voyage. That was at a time when the business of whaling was booming. It was strong in the U.S. And it was strong around the world.

The absorbing artwork once toured the U.S. It traveled on wagons. It traveled on trains. It stopped in Boston. In Buffalo. In New York. In St. Louis. And it stopped in other cities. It was on a national tour.

When displayed, a narrator told stories of hunting and processing whales. The panorama was mounted on a system of cranks and reels. These allowed it to go across a theater stage.

But the painting wore down from so much travel. Its paint started chipping. It was put away in storage.

A team has restored the panorama. It was a 20-year effort. The painting is a quarter-mile-long. It is thought to be the longest painting in North America. That's according to Jennifer McDermott. She works for the Associated Press.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is in Massachusetts. It poured $400,000 into the effort. They conserved the painting. They digitized the painting. And they stored the painting. That's according to Allison Meier. She is with Hyperallergic. She reported on the project. She did this in February of 2017.

D. Jordan Berson is a textile conservator. He’s managing the project. He tells McDermott he sprayed an adhesive on the panorama. This was to stabilize a paint layer. It had powdered over time. He stitched sections that were taken apart. He repaired thinning areas of the textile. He fixed tears.

The museum is currently in the process of finding a venue large enough to display the artwork. It will be shown as a static piece. The venue will need to be at least 16,000 square feet.

Every section of the piece has also been photographed. Those have been merged into a large digital display. This is in an effort to mimic the original experience. It allows them to show the panorama moving once again.  

“It’s a national treasure that’s been out of the spotlight for too long,” Berson tells McDermont.

When it was last on tour, the painting might have been used as a recruiting tool. At the time, whaling crews were losing young men to the Gold Rush. Then they attended the touring exhibitions. The audience members would see images of far-away destinations. It was likely they had never traveled to those places. 

These destinations included Cape Horn. They included Fiji. This was sure to excite their imaginations. That’s what Michael Dyer tells McDermott. Dyer is the museum’s curator of maritime history

Berson said he hopes that the storied panorama will eventually return to tour. He’d like it to return to some of the cities it once visited.

This time they won’t be recruiting anyone. But one imagines the huge artwork will likely provoke a new conversation. It may spark talk on the artwork. And on the history of commercial whaling. (The ban on which was only issued by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.)

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