You SHOULD…Look At: The “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage”

“You SHOULD…Look at the “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” from the New Bedford Whaling Museum


With the omnipresence of digital culture, we often tend to think of our society as a predominately visual culture. The 1848 “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World,” a 1,275-foot-long painting performed as a giant moving scroll, reminds us that visual communication did not begin with the advent of projected photographic images in the late 19th century.


You can experience the entirety of this recently restored work online, at Now part of the collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, this work by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington was performed across the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, part of a burgeoning and popular culture of panorama performance. The moving panorama is an aspect of global traditions of painting and performance with antecedents in Chinese, Indian, Javanese, Persian, and various European cultures. This dynamic, spirited means of telling the important stories of a community–religious, political, social, historical, personal–combines a succession of images with texts and music, allowing audiences to be reached by a multi-media experience.


Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, was said to have seen this panorama before he wrote his classic novel about whaling and American life. Like Melville’s book, the New Bedford panorama shows us an epic voyage on a whaling ship from New Bedford south to Cape Horn, and then into the whaling fields of the Pacific. Like Melville’s novel, the panorama is much more than an examination of a profitable extractive industry, showing us as well how Americans viewed the world, other peoples (in Latin America, the Pacific, and along the Northwest coast of North America), and how the United States might be beginning to think of its economic and political role in the modern world.


The “Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” can give us a direct sense of what 19th-century Americans experienced when they attended one of the most popular performance forms of the time.”


-Dr. John Bell
Director, Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry
Associate Professor, Dramatic Arts Department