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They Behold the Fate of the Apostate, design by Joseph Kyle and Henry Courtney Selous

More than fifteen years of research and restoration came to a show-stopping finale in the summer of 2012 at the Saco Museum with a major exhibition and public programs focused on the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress. This marked the completion of a major grant-funded project to conserve this national treasure of 19th-century American art, which was thought lost for 100 years and rediscovered only in 1996. For the first time since the 1860s, the entire historic panorama—800 feet of vibrantly painted muslin canvas, in four sections—was on view in two downtown locations, the Saco Museum and the historic Pepperell Mills. Live performances of a full-scale, modern replica recreated the historic experience of seeing a moving panorama in action, while the debut of a web-based film animation introduced the panorama to a global audience. Gallery talks and family activities were also offered, including a day-long public symposium with distinguished scholars on September 21-22, 2012. The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress was on view June 30 through November 10, 2012; following the exhibition, the panorama was removed from view in order to “rest” it from exposure (light and changes in humidity take their toll on historic textiles), and it is now safe in storage at the Saco Museum.

The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress illustrates, in a way that no other work of art has done before or since, a moment when ideas about faith, art, and landscape all traveled along the same narrow highway in the course of American life. Also known as Bunyan’s Tableau, it was created in 1851 and presented to audiences nationwide throughout the second half of the 19th century.  Precursors to the modern motion picture, moving panoramas consisted of immense lengths of fabric painted to depict popular stories, events and locations of the time.  Panoramas were presented by scrolling the massive canvas paintings across a stage, accompanied by narration and music. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, on which this panorama is based, was also a sensation in its time and beyond. Written in 1678 England, it achieved a peak of popularity in 19th-century America, where it became a huge influence upon literature and religion. The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress was one of the most important moving panoramas in the United States, an exceptional example of this genre of painting that bridged high art and popular culture. It was conceived by members of the National Academy of Design in New York, with designs contributed by Hudson River School masters Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, Daniel Huntington, and others. In this way, it relates directly to the developing national school of landscape painting.

After its final performance in York County, Maine, the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress spent many years in a Biddeford barn and was ultimately given to the York Institute (now the Saco Museum) in 1896.  The panorama was forgotten as the museum’s location moved from building to building, and was periodically closed for wartime uses, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was not until 1996, a full century after the original gift, that the panorama was rediscovered in the museum’s storage vault.  It was this discovery that prompted the panorama’s partial conservation—approximately one fourth was treated—and exhibition tour in 1999. This 2012 project completed the conservation work begun two decades ago, treating and exhibiting the panorama in its entirety and exploring innovative new strategies to make this immense masterpiece of 19th century American art accessible to audiences and scholars worldwide.

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