We’re lucky here in New Bedford.

We have a big sense of who we are and where we came from.

Thanks to the Whaling Museum. Thanks to a spate of gifted local historians. Thanks to playing a central role in American history during the whaling era and the creation of the 54th Civil War regiment.

The Grand Panorama currently on display at Kilburn Mills in the South End captures a lot of that identity.

Locals have enjoyed picking out some of the still-standing 19th century churches and mansions on the scroll as the whaling ship sets sail down the Acushnet in 1848. And those who know the Azores or Cabo Verde have been thrilled to see the mountains and mists of their ancestral homes — the utterly haunting section that depicts the volcanic eruption of Pico do Fogo.

There’s something about following a whale ship around the world that still resonates. It recreates for us not only New Bedford’s coming of age, but America’s. It’s a creation myth, our own creation myth.

I was surprised when I finally got down to Kilburn to see the Purrington-Russell Panorama to learn part of the fourth panel has been missing for at least 100 years. The missing parts, about 300 feet, would have included the last three big stops of the round-the-world New England whalers: the breathtaking beauty of the Bay of Islands in New Zealand; the very active whaling grounds off the coast of Cape Town; and also St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where Napoleon in exile was reportedly a big attraction for the mariners.

Maybe the scrolls even showed the ship finally sailing back up the Acushnet River.

If you’ve experienced this phenomenal piece of work — and imagine what it must have been like when it was touring mid-19th century, with the scrolls moving, music playing and a narrator telling the story — it’s hard not to ask what’s next. The Whaling Museum’s conservation project has done an amazing restoration job to get the 1,275-foot long, eight-foot high canvas displayed in the resonant setting of a late 19th century textile mill. But it can’t stay there and it’s not clear whether it could ever be permanently displayed. It would take some sort of climate-controlled environment for such an organic piece of art.

But imagine the possibilities for the panorama. It has already garnered national attention with the Wall Street Journal saying the nation’s longest painting “has immense cultural, historical and aesthetic appeal.” According to the Journal, the curators are hoping the last section “may miraculously reappear,” but more likely it is gone forever.

Or is it?

What is known about it? Could a recreation in the same style as Purrington and Russell be realistically rendered? Would there be a reason to do that? The painting is accurate and primitive, and as the Journals says, “surprising in its variety and beauty.”

It seems like there may be some value in the Grand Panorama as an attraction if you could bring that whale ship all the way home. Imagine a recorded narrative, with music and the whaling voyage story being told on headphones as you walk it’s fifth of a mile length.

The Panorama, of course, should be viewed in a 21st century context. And appropriately on display at Kilburn is critical analysis that notes that the whaling voyage takes — and the painting depicts — an arguably exploitative nature of western commerce to the aboriginal peoples of the south oceans. On Fiji, a scene depicts a woman helping another woman give birth in the open as an American ship comes steaming into the harbor.

But it is history. It is our history. And the Purrington-Russell Panorama Conservation Project has done a wonderful job of restoring, contextualizing and displaying it.

It’s exciting for the people of New Bedford to ask what might be next.

Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times and SouthCoastToday.com.