Beneath the veneer of educational entertainment, nineteenth century panoramas performed significant ideological work, authorizing hegemonic histories, promoting nationalism, and conditioning spectators to be mass audience members. While grand theaters and late-nineteenth century resurgence have ensured ongoing scholarly attention to circular panoramas, the very attributes that account for proliferation—low cost of production, mobility, and mass appeal—have curtailed scholar’s access to (and, to an extent, interest in) nineteenth century moving panoramas. In contrast to fixed circular panoramas in urban centers, moving panoramas transported city dwellers to the country and the city to the countryside, promoted a logic of circulation, and relied upon peripatetic showmanship, dramatic theatrical performance, and special effects. In this sense, the moving panorama presents a gap in American social fabric, falling somewhere between the Great Pictures and the Big Screen.
While few moving panoramas survived the twentieth century, one has benefited from the “paradoxical good fortune of neglect” (Rathbone 9). Of the seven panoramas devoted to Mississippi, the Dickeson-Egan Mississippi Panorama (c.1850) is the sole survivor of and a peculiar artifact from the late-1840s moving panorama revival. Where other excursions thematized the scenery of the river, the Dickeson-Egan panorama placed Indian archeology, customs, and habits at the forefront of the excursion, a 348-foot, 27-scene spatial-temporal journey across the Mississippi Valley from the pre-Columbian era to antebellum period. Given the panorama’s singular status, recent restoration, and the availability of ancillary materials (journal entries, hand-drawn maps and plans, cross-section drawings, artifact drawings, and handbills), another project of excavation presents itself—one that falls somewhere between American Studies and Digital Humanities.
The Moving Mississippi Panorama (MoMiPa) is that excavation. A pedagogical tool and living record, MoMiPa amalgamates previously diffuse sources of record, charting a path from Dickeson’s archeological expeditions (1837-1844), to his collaboration with painter J. John Egan and subsequent tour (1850-1853), to the panorama’s role in Philadelphia The Centennial Exhibition (1876), to its rediscovery in the twentieth century (1941) and restoration in the twenty-first (2012). In addition to curating images, artifacts, and context from various archival holdings, MoMiPa invites contributions from early American scholars using an annotation system modeled on NYPL’s What’s on the Menu? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, MoMiPa seeks to recreate the aesthetics of the performance. While discreet images of the panorama belie narrative continuity, MoMiPa synthesizes historical records, notes, and handbills to recreate Dickeson’s original 35-minute show, from audio narration (inspired by Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi), to musical accompaniment (Mm. Harriet Schwieso’s The White Fawn of Mississippi), to special effects (including steamboat whistles and the flickers of an overhead gas-light chandelier).
In keeping with the etymology of “panorama” (“all seeing”), MoMiPa poses a new look at the Dickeson-Egan panorama to perform a broader argument: that the moving panorama functioned as a vital—and vibrant—information technology in nineteenth century America. Thank you for entertaining this embryonic abstract–I welcome your feedback!