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Museum Restores North America’s Longest Painting

Completed in 1848, the quarter-mile-long panorama deteriorated after it toured the country on wagons and trains

The 1848 "Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World." (New Bedford Whaling Museum)
smithsonian.com

"Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” measures an impressive 1,275 feet long and eight-and-a-half feet tall.

The 1848 painting, created by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, captures all aspects of a whaling voyage, at a time when the business of whaling was booming in the U.S. and around the world.

The absorbing artwork once toured the U.S. on wagons and trains, stopped in Boston, Buffalo, New York, St. Louis among other cities on a national tour.

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

But after its paint started chipping, deteriorating from so much travel, the piece was put away in storage.

Now, a team working on an effort 20 years in the making has restored the panorama, which at a quarter-mile-long, is considered the longest painting in North America, reports Jennifer McDermott for the Associated Press.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts poured $400,000 into the endeavor to conserve, digitize and store the panorama, according to Allison Meier of Hyperallergic who reported on the project in February of 2017.

D. Jordan Berson, a textile conservator who's managing the project, tells McDermott he sprayed an adhesive on the panorama to stabilize a paint layer that had powdered over time, stitched sections that were taken apart, repaired thinning areas of the textile and fixed tears.

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

In an effort to mimic the original experience and show the panorama moving once again, every section of the piece has also been photographed and merged into a large digital display.

"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 a recruiting tool. At the time, whaling crews were losing young men to the Gold Rush. But when they attended the touring exhibitions, audience members would see images of far-away destinations they had likely never traveled to, like Cape Horn and Fiji, sure to excite their imaginations, Michael Dyer, the museum's curator of maritime history tells McDermott.

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

This time, rather than recruiting anyone, one imagines the behemoth artwork will likely provoke a new conversation on the artwork and the history of commercial whaling (the ban on which was only issued by the International Whaling Commission in 1986).

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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