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The Saint Louis Art Museum Begins a Mississippi River Valley Panorama Restoration

It’s 348 feet long, nearly 8 feet high, as dramatic as a Hollywood movie. And now it’s getting a makeover—in public.

Photograph courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

CLICK HERE FOR AN IMAGE GALLERY OF MORE PANELS FROM THE PANORAMIC.

Dr. Montroville W. Dickeson, a gentleman of Philadelphia, was a naturalist, a collector of rare coins, an amateur archaeologist. In 1837, he left his medical practice to travel the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys; for seven years, he camped, excavated Indian burial mounds, sketched, collected pottery. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1844, and in 1850, commissioned Irish artist John J. Egan to paint his travels as a series of 25 scenes on a 348-foot by 7-foot-9-inch roll of muslin cloth.

This was not just a big painting, though. It was a moving panorama, one of the most popular forms of public entertainment in the 19th century, and a sort of precursor to movies. Attached to two enormous spools, the fabric scrolled forward to give the audience the sense of watching scenes pass from a boat or a train, while a “delineator” narrated. It was part slideshow, part sideshow, a cross between PechaKucha Night and a traveling medicine show. Dickeson hit the road with his panorama in 1852, charging 25 cents a view (12 ½ cents for children). A broadside bragged: “Dr. D. has devoted twelve years of his life in these investigations, having in that time explored the whole Valley of the Mississippi,” opened “1,000 Indian Monuments or Mounds,” and collected “40,000 relics” (some of which traveled with the panorama). But, the broadside effused, the “entertainment”—a “most magnificent Scenic Mirror, covering 15,000 feet of canvas, illustrating the Monumental Grandeur of the Valley, with the splendid scenes that occur up on the Father of Rivers”—paled in comparison to Dickeson’s lecture, which he bragged was “worth alone, double the price of admission.”

The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi River Valley was rolled up and stored away in the basement of the Penn Museum, where it wasn’t discovered until 1941. The Saint Louis Art Museum acquired it in 1952, but it wasn’t publicly displayed again until 2004, when one panel, “Dr. Dickeson Excavating a Mound,” was shown as part of “Currents of Change: Art and Life Along the Mississippi River, 1850–1861” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Now, this summer, SLAM begins a two-year public restoration of Panorama in the Main Exhibition Galleries, before it is permanently installed in the American art galleries in 2012 (thanks to the expansion, the museum finally has the room to display it). Paul Haner, SLAM’s paintings conservator, is overseeing the restoration with assistance from Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant; conservation students; and Philadelphia conservator Mark Bockrath, who assisted with the 2009 restoration project and exhibition “Reviving Antiquity: Restoring Hubert Robert’s Views of Ancient Ruins.”

“These things are going to knock people out when they see them,” Haner says.

“They’re very…dramatic,” Turk agrees. “I don’t know if Egan was, but a lot of the artists who produced these had a background in theater scenery. It has to make a big impact very quickly and isn’t scrutinized from two inches away.”

Though there are a few placid, pretty nature scenes (a buck and a doe resting by the side of the river, a burial mound dusted in snow), most of the images are astonishing: a group of men in top hats gathered around an excavated mastodon skeleton; a bloody hand-to-hand battle on horseback between Indians and European settlers; a stratified X-ray view of a mound excavation, with layers of clay pots and rows of skeletons (and Dickeson himself, a tiny, sketching figure in the corner). In one panel, a rainbow pours itself into the top of a burial mound as a group of men cross the river in a canoe; in another, explorers creep through a cave, their torches illuminating the petroglyphs on the walls, but not two skeletons curled up like sleeping cats.

Haner has already begun work on the first panel: a pair of Native American men standing in what’s now Marietta, Ohio. Before he even picks up a paintbrush, Haner first irons—yes, with a laundry iron—any wrinkles in the fabric. Then he applies a consolidant to the friable old paint, and only inpaints areas where paint loss ruins the legibility of the image. Haner says Egan used “distemper—not tempera, but distemper, which is just basically dried animal glue with pigment in it,” but he uses water-based gouache.

Once the panorama moves into the galleries, it will be mounted on a custom-made frame, fabricated by St. Louis metalworking firm Laciny Bros., that will show an entire frame at a time, as Haner and his assistants work on its surface.

“It’s going to be flat for part of the time that we’re working on it, and vertical part of the time,” Haner says. “During the time that it’s flat, there is going to be a ceiling-mounted camera, so they can watch a monitor to see [what we’re doing].”

Text panels will also be placed throughout the gallery explaining the history of the piece. There’s also a description of the conservation process—which, Haner says, did not require a lot of analysis or investigation.

“There are no mysteries here,” he says. “It’s just really big!”

“Restoring an American Treasure” opens June 12 in the Main Exhibition Galleries and will be on view through August 21. The exhibit will include lectures by conservators at scheduled times; call 314-721-0072 or visit slam.org for more information.
 

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