- A Panoramic View
Opening in July 2018, the New Bedford Whaling Museum celebrated its maritime heritage with the exhibition A Spectacle in Motion: The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage 'Round the World. It featured a nearly one-quarter-mile-long panoramic painting, the longest in North America. Far too large to fit in the museum facility on Johnny Cake Hill, the immense seascape with its depictions of whaling was displayed in Kilburn Mills, a crumbling brick warehouse on the sea, an edifice lifted from an Edward Gorey crosshatched, Victorian fantasy. In contrast to the building, the panorama was startlingly vibrant, following a voyage of the whaling ship Kutusoffand illustrating the fiery volcanoes of Cape Verde, the treacherous icebergs of Cape Horn, the sun-washed streets of Rio de Janeiro, and the verdant canopies of Fiji, not to mention the numerous scenes of whale hunts and their cetaceous victims as emblems of bloody commerce. It was easy to see how the panorama must have engendered a sense of sensational wonder to the plain-clothed New Englanders when it was first displayed in Boston in 1849.
Originally stretched taut between rollers, the panoramic mural was brought to life as a large-scale historiscope with a hand crank, a moving picture that actualized the circumnavigation of whaling decades before the advent of cinema. Now far too rare and delicate to withstand this kind of archaic animation, the curators of the exhibit digitized the canvas so that attendees could view a twenty-first-century version of the panorama in motion. While the modern technology used to produce the film was undoubtedly impressive, it paled in comparison to the magnitude of the original work on display. Perhaps most fascinating, however, was the fact that the locations painted so vividly on the canvas are no less exotic and unfamiliar to most of the residents of New Bedford today, an economically depressed city decaying in America's current post-industrial era. In this sense, the panorama exhibition democratizes the history it dramatizes. [End Page 87]
New Bedford secured its place in American mythology when it was made famous by Herman Melville's iconic novel Moby-Dick(1851). In the decade preceding the book's publication, New Bedford unseated Nantucket to become the uncontested whaling capital of the world, and the same year that the book was published, the author set sail from New Bedford as a green hand on the whaler Acushnet. From the city's rockbound harbor, hundreds of whaling vessels departed on voyages all over the world, circumnavigating the globe from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific. These perilous journeys secured immense fortunes for some and prematurely ended the lives of others. The panorama, co-painted from memory by New Bedford amateur artists Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, not only helped to legitimize whaling as a national industry in a period when America was still seeking its cultural identity on the world stage, but also put New Bedford on the map as an important American city. Although its population was only around 17,000 in the 1840s, the city's reputation for riches was magnified in the popular imagination as part of as part of America's growing identification with nationalism. The whale hunter took his place alongside the sailor, the soldier, the farmer, and the pioneer as an icon of the still-young country's idealized notions of white manhood and masculinity.
Today, while New Bedford's population has grown exponentially to over 90,000 residents, its reputation over the past fifty years has become associated far more with crime and poverty than with its romanticized maritime past. From gang warfare and the largest cocaine drug arrest in Massachusetts' history to the notorious 1983 public gang rape of Cheryl Ann Araujo in a bar, New Bedford's recent history is fraught at best. In this sense, the city has become a media spectacle in itself, a fascinating counterpoint to the marketing of the panorama as "a spectacle in motion." Although...