ST. PETERSBURG — A new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts will give visitors a look at the Herculean endeavor to construct the Panama Canal, a pivotal feat of engineering that opened 100 years ago this year.
Dozens of photos taken throughout its construction will be on display through Nov. 7, linking art, technology and history as they show how massive an undertaking it was while helping visitors understand the complex technical concepts that made it a reality.
“The significance of the building of it can't be overstated,” museum curatorial assistant Sabrina Hughes said.
The canal's opening revolutionized international trade and travel by allowing ships to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through a man-made waterway carved into the narrow isthmus connecting North and South America. In centuries prior, ships in the western hemisphere bound for Asia or Australia had to go thousands of miles out of their way, passing south between Cape Horn and Antarctica.
The canal's construction involved carving across about 48 miles of land, including mountains.
Photographer Ernest “Red” Hallen was hired to document the multi-year project.
His images document the construction of the lock system that allows ships to pass by raising and lowering water levels in segments of the canal to correspond with variations in elevation.
“We have a lot of images that focus on different view of the locks by which the photographer is trying to explain how the locks work,” Hughes said.
Hallen also turned his lens on archaeological sites in the area, namely the ruins of Old Panama, the first European settlement on the Pacific, founded in 1519.
A major focus of the exhibit will be Culebra, or Gaillard, Cut, which was the most perilous portion of the project. It involved carving a valley into the Culebra mountain ridge, linking Gatun Lake and the Gulf of Panama and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. During that portion of the project, mudslides and other hazardous conditions endangered worker lives and caused significant delays.
Fifty images will be on display.
The exhibit opens Saturday in the museum's second-floor Works on Paper Gallery. At 3 p.m. Sunday, Hughes will give an overview of the photos. On Nov. 2, shortly before the exhibit's closing, engineer John Ranon, who worked on the canal in the 1980s, will offer his perspective on the project and its enduring significance.