June 24, 2012

Panoramic view: 'Motion pictures' in Saco

Saved from an ignominious end, this rare 19th-century painted scroll -- one of America's early 'motion pictures' -- has been painstakingly restored and will be displayed by the Saco Museum in a new exhibition.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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A section of the 800-foot muslin scroll “Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress” goes up in the cavernous former loom room at the Pepperell Mill complex in Biddeford.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Anna Kelley, left, Saco Museum director Jessica Skwire Routhier and Marie O’Brien hang the scroll, which was created in 1851 and based on the 1678 book by John Bunyan, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below


"Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress"

When: Opens Saturday and on view through Nov. 10

Where: Saco Museum, 371 Main St., Saco; and Pepperell Mill, 100 Main St., Biddeford

Admission: $5 for each exhibition, or $7.50 same-day ticket for both exhibitions

Information: 283-3861 or dylerlibrarysacomuseum.org

Reception: An opening reception, with $10 admission, is from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Pepperell Mill, Biddeford

In 1877, Biddeford real estate agent Luther Bryant bought the panorama from Charles A. Shaw, an inventor and local theater owner. Bryant hung the panorama, or part of it, in his Biddeford barn.

Some 20 years later, Bryant's heirs donated the panorama to the York Institute, which is now known as the Saco Museum. In 1897, the York Institute exhibited the tableau for what is believed the last time, with one exception. In November 1999, the Portland Museum of Art displayed a section of the panorama.

Not coincidentally, Routhier worked as a curator at the PMA at that time, and that exhibition introduced her to the unusual cultural artifact. When she took over as director of the Saco Museum in 2009, she was familiar with the panorama, and knew its story and importance. She made it a priority to secure funding for its restoration.

The project has become a huge task. The panorama is approximately 800 feet long and 8 feet tall. During the 1990s, it was divided into four roughly equal sections of approximately 200 feet. One section was restored at that time for the PMA show.

The current project completes the restoration and also creates a replica.

The Saco Museum worked with the Portland imaging company Designtex. A team from Designtex made hundreds of digital images of the original and fabricated a replica. The replica will be shown in its originally intended format, as a moving panorama, throughout the summer and fall.

The original is hung on sturdy walls in the museum and on vertical pillars in the mill, strong enough to the support the weight of the muslin. The entire thing weighs 300 to 400 pounds.

The replica is a bit heavier, because it was made with a durable material capable of withstanding the rigors of being scrolled. It weighs 400 pounds or more. The challenge with the replica is building a device capable of showing it on its scrolls. The scrolling mechanisms were being tested and refined last week.

"It's almost like reinventing the wheel," Routhier said.

This is a major project for a little museum.

The annual budget of the Saco Museum is roughly that of this project: $170,000. The federal Saving America's Treasures grant for $52,000 was a matching grant, meaning the Saco Museum had to raise that much to secure the grant. This project is the largest and most complicated ever attempted by the museum, said Peter Morelli, a museum trustee and development director for Saco.

He credited Routhier for taking it on and seeing it through.

"This is something we have been talking about for many years," he said. "But in 2009, we hired a really good museum director, and she was able to get this project done. It's incredible that it's happening. It's been a long time coming."

It's a source of pride for the city and the museum, he added.

"This is an incredibly important piece of a local institution," he said. "We have this amazing thing. There are only about 20 left in the world, and ours is among the best and most elaborate."

Routhier has become somewhat of an expert on the subject, and has spoken at national conventions about Saco's moving panorama. In September, the museum will convene a symposium exploring topics related to the panorama. Speakers will come from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the University of California, among other institutions.

She is proud of her work on the project, but credits her predecessors and many volunteers who have worked on it over the years. "I came in at the tail end of the project," she said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Artists Joseph Kyle and Edward Harrison May developed the idea for the panorama in 1848, working with a number of other artists, including Frederic Edwin Church, to provide designs for major scenes. Among the images on the scroll are “They Lose Their Way in the Valley of the Shadow of Death” by Daniel Huntington.

Photos by Matthew Hamilton/Courtesy of Williamstown Art Conservation Center

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“Land of Beulah” by Jasper Cropsey.

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The scroll was sprayed with a consolidant at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts, where much of the restoration work was done.

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