In true “Greatest Showman” style, the imminent exhibition of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Museum ’Round the World is being billed as “A Spectacle in Motion.”
It is certainly going to be that — and a whole lot more.
The Standard-Times was given exclusive media access to plans for the exhibition of the restored 19th century 1,275-foot work of art, Grand Panorama of a Whaling Museum ’Round the World last week at the museum.
From that meeting, we can now report that the legacy cultural event of the summer will take place in the city at none other than Kilburn Mills Studios on West Rodney French Boulevard in New Bedford’s South End.
It is there where the Whaling Museum found the space and proper historical ambiance to reveal the restored Grand Panorama to the world in a special off-site exhibit that will open on July 14 and remain on view through October 8, 2018.
“Kilburn Mills was built in 1903,” says Tina Malott, museum director of marketing and public relations, “The same year the Whaling Museum was founded.”
It’s not the only bit of serendipity behind this inspired choice.
The selection of Kilburn Mills as an exhibition site for the panorama comes as the building itself is undergoing a renewal — along with the entire “peninsula” section of the city.
As such, the Whaling Museum’s decision to show the panorama there reinforces the idea that arts and culture is not only a means in itself, but a means to an end. It has the power to reinvigorate a city and revitalize neighborhoods by its very exercise in often overlooked spaces.
Just as this unique panorama was once forgotten but given new life, “A Spectacle in Motion” brings national attention to all of the City of New Bedford’s cultural and emotional infrastructure.
The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World
Without hyperbole, it’s accurate to write that The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World is a national treasure.
It is a 1,275-foot-long painting on canvas that depicts a whaling voyage — originating in New Bedford, of course. Which is no surprise, since it was painted in 1848 by New Bedford artists Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, when the city was secure in its position as the world’s top whaling port.
Museum materials state that it is a unique work of art because it is one of only a few surviving American moving panoramas — a popular art and entertainment form that reached its peak in the mid-19th century.
Panoramas were very much the movies of the time period.
In its entirety, and accompanied by narration, music and other special effects, this Grand Panorama ran a feature-length two hours.
All panoramas were “played” across a stage in a theatrical setting from spool to spool — much like early films ran from reel to reel.
According to Whaling Museum Chief Curator Christina Connett, panoramas can be placed squarely in the context of a rising middle class enjoying leisure time in the nascent industrial age. It is very much a part of the burgeoning popular entertainment forms of the day, like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth; and other amusements like World Fairs.
Indeed, over a century after its initial “theatrical” run, the Grand Panorama was exhibited at the 1964 World’s Fair in Corona, Queens. It’s next stop after that? A former furniture store on Pope’s Island, New Bedford in 1969!
But a showing way back in 1849 at the Boston Armory intrigues Christina Connett the most.
The historical record shows that Herman Melville was at his sister’s home a few blocks away from the armory at the time the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World was on display — the adventure of which his own popular early novels, like “Typee” and “Oomo,” brought to life.
“It’s nice to imagine that he saw the ‘Panorama’ when he was there,” she says.
Restoring the Grand Panorama
It’s nice to imagine that anyone can see the Grand Panorama at all — let alone back in the city where it was created over 150 years ago.
Thanks to some more serendipity and a lot of hard work, imagination becomes reality — and digital reimagination — this summer at Kilburn and the Whaling Museum.
The museum chanced upon ownership of the work of art when it was donated to them in 1918 by Benjamin Cummings — who found it in a local attic. Some 300 feet were missing, so the voyage ’round the world ends at Fiji — but at 1,275 feet it’s still likely the longest painting in the United States. (A nice piece of promo material at the museum teases visitors with the fact that the painting is actually longer than the Empire State Building is tall.)
The Whaling Museum has exhibited sections of it at various times over the years, and as noted, it made its way to New York City and Pope’s Island in the 1960s, just about a century after its original tour of East Coast and Midwest cities like Cincinnati, Buffalo, St. Louis, Baltimore, New York and Boston from 1849 through 1870.
The restored Grand Panorama visitors will see at Kilburn is the first time it has been publicly shown since the 1970s, when only sections of it were on display at the Whaling Museum before being put in storage.
Christina Connett says that the goal of the restoration project wasn’t perfection, but stabilization so that it lasts another 100 years.
“We want people to see it for what it was back in the 19th century,” she explains, “So there are some small abrasions and the like which allows the authenticity to show.”
The 15-minute running time digital display will mimic the original movement of the Grand Panorama — while the original will be displayed in its entirety at Kilburn mounted on static, brushed aluminum panels of 400 feet each.
Both the actual and digital exhibits will also feature new, original artwork commissioned by the museum, special performances at various times and other related ephemera of the period over the course of the summer exhibit. After that, elements of it will hit the road for another tour, just as it did in the 19th century.
The Grand Panorama at Kilburn
Which brings us up to the present day — and the exciting decision to display the restored Grand Panorama at Kilburn.
Kilburn Mills Studios — officially called Kilburn Mill at Clarks Cove — itself occupies a special place in the city’s emotional infrastructure.
Originally a textile mill, most city residents probably recall it as the former home of Madewell, the apparel company. Today, Kilburn Mills Studios is home to an eclectic range of businesses as it undergoes its own renovation.
A gym, a dancing studio, a silk screening company, a vast antiques store and other going concerns call it home. Significant improvements have recently been made to the building, including new windows, a new roof, refurbished staircases and more.
Importantly for this story and in the context of the creative destination New Bedford has become, a number of noted artists maintain studios in the building. Artists like Mark “Maki” Carvalho, Kelly Zelen, Will Wolf and others.
It also houses the gem-like Judith Klein Art Gallery & Studio, which in addition to beautiful works of art also boasts a stunning view of the new Cove Walk atop the Hurricane Barrier — and Clarks Cove itself in the rear of the building.
Further, the owner of Colo Colo Gallery, Luis Villanueva, has an outdoor sculpture garden on the drawing board for the property.
And all of this sits in the South End of New Bedford at the entrance to what is referred to as the “peninsula” area, which encompasses the city’s municipal beaches, Fort Rodman, Fort Taber, a companion Hurricane Barrier walk to the east, Harbor Walk, and too much more to mention.
The decision by the Whaling Museum to exhibit the Grand Panorama here and in this context is an amazing opportunity to thrust the entire peninsula and its many attractions into the spotlight when literally the eyes of the region and nation will be on the Grand Panorama.
This is arts and culture at work across the city — for the good of the entire city.
You could call it A Spectacle in Motion.
Steven Froias blogs for the coworking facility, Groundwork! at NewBedfordCoworking.com. Email: StevenFroias@gmail.com.