Before there were movies, there were moving pictures; and in the mid-19th century, there were moving murals.
One moving mural has been rediscovered and restored at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and it's being readied for a return to public display in 2018.
The painting, titled "Purrington and Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Around the World” spans eight feet high and 1,275 feet long — the longest painting in North America, and possibly the world.
According to Chief Curator Christina Connett, it was created by Caleb Purrington, a well-known sign painter in New Bedford, and Benjamin Russell, a New Bedford whaler and painter. It is believed they painted it entirely themselves.
The story begins back in 1841, when Russell ran into some financial problems. To make money, the whaling museum's curator of history Mike Dyer explained, Russell went on a whaling voyage, recorded it in a series of drawings, and then sold those drawings upon his return to New Bedford. But when Russell conceived of his “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage” is unknown.
The panorama was a popular form of entertainment in Europe and had made it across the Atlantic by the time Russell was doing his paintings. But Russell took the panorama experience to a whole new level.
It was originally displayed by unfurling it from four separate rolls, said Connett, and it moved from left to right in front of a stationary audience, creating the illusion of being on-board a ship.
The panorama accurately documents the voyage of the whaling ship Lagoda, which left New Bedford in 1841. For three years, it sailed across the Atlantic to the Azores, Cape Verde Islands, Rio de Janeiro and beyond to the Pacific. The massive mural depicts in beautiful detail all the ports of call, including the home port of New Bedford, scenes of the ocean during doldrums and storms, and an accurate display of the hunt and capture of whales.
It was an early form of a travelogue — through the panorama, people could see and experience far-off places they had only heard about.
The panorama was exhibited from 1849 to 1851 and toured six cities, including Boston. It was then put into storage and seen once more in 1870 before it disappeared. It was rediscovered in 1918 and given to the Whaling Museum, where it sat in storage.
The panorama was at one time considered worthless, said D. Jordan Burson, director of collections at the whaling museum. It was almost discarded, because museum officials say no one knew how to restore it. But in 2001 the painting was surveyed and it was determined new techniques could give it new life.
Thanks to a $400,000 grant and 10 years of painstaking work, the grand panorama was restored.
But due to its age and fragility, it won’t been displayed as it was back in 1849. It has been digitized, said Connett, and a projection will recreate the original experience.
The newly restored "Grand Panorama" will be seen next summer in what the Whaling Museum is billing as a blockbuster event, and it may be exhibited in other locations.