Opening February 22nd, 2019
On February 22, 2019, Atlanta History Center opens Cyclorama: The Big Picture, featuring the fully restored cyclorama painting, The Battle of Atlanta. At the centerpiece of this new multi-media experience is a 132-year-old hand-painted work of art that stands 49 feet tall, is longer than a football field, and weighs 10,000 pounds. This painting is one of only two cycloramas in the United States—the other being the Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama —making Atlanta home to one of America’s largest historic treasures.
In the 1880s, the gigantic The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting was an immersive experience—the equivalent of virtual reality today. The painting is a full-color, three-dimensional illusion designed to transport the viewer onto the battlefield. Cycloramas were created as a form of entertainment—they were the IMAX of their time. The painting was a visual story about the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, but over time it has evolved into a significant artifact that has its own fascinating story. Now, the historical journey of the painting itself is part of the ‘big picture’.
Created at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee by 17 German artists, The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama took five months to create before it debuted in Minneapolis in 1886. Painted 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, the painting originally depicted the battle from a Northern perspective as a heroic Union victory so that it would appeal to Northern audiences. When the painting relocated to Atlanta in 1892, it was slightly modified and advertised as “the only Confederate victory ever painted” to appeal to its new Southern audiences that maintained Confederate sympathies. The 1864 Battle of Atlanta was not a Confederate victory, and most of these changes from 1892 were reversed in the 1930s.
In the 127 years that it has been on display in Atlanta, it has been the subject of periodic interpretation. At times, it was seen as a proud symbol of the capital of the New South rising from the ashes left by General William T. Sherman. It has also been criticized as an anachronism meant to glorify the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy. Perceptions of history, and the painting itself, have depended on the eye of the beholder, as audiences viewed it in different times and places.
On July 23, 2014—one day after the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta—Mayor Kasim Reed announced a 75-year license agreement for the relocation, restoration, and conservation of the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting and the Texas locomotive to the Atlanta History Center.
The conservation and transfer of Atlanta’s largest painting was orchestrated by a team of Atlanta History Center staff and international experts, working with some of the best minds in the highly specialized field of cyclorama conservation. The team’s two year process included strength-testing the canvas, documenting the current condition of the paint layers and fiberglass backing, and conducting stabilization conservation efforts needed prior to moving the painting.
After it was carefully separated along two existing seams, the two 5,000-pound sections were successfully rolled around two 45-foot-tall custom-built steel spools. Each spool was lifted out of the Grant Park building by a crane through two 7-foot-square holes cut into the concrete roof. After being loaded on the backs of two flatbed trucks, the painting was trucked to the Atlanta History Center where cranes conducted the delicate operation in reverse, lifting and carefully lowering the scrolls through a 10-foot-square opening in the roof of the 25,000-square-foot custom-built Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building at the Atlanta History Center.
Visitors will now see The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting as it was originally intended to be viewed—an experience no one has seen or felt in nearly 100 years.
Atlanta History Center uses this restored work of art and entertainment, and the history of the painting itself, as a tool to talk about the ‘big picture.’ How can perceptions, memory and interpretations be shaped, or mis-shaped, by a combination of art and entertainment, myth and memory, cultural context, and current events during different eras?
Through exhibitions, rare artifacts, historic images, immersive technology, digital resources, videos, and museum theatre, visitors are encouraged to look critically at a range of Civil War imagery and consider how images and entertainment can shape how we see history. Photography, art, movies, marketing, and media all provoke emotions, and have the ability to produce biased, or incomplete ideas about historical events. They do not always provide the full perspective of events and people. What stories are not shown? What voices are not heard? And why?
Using historical evidence, Atlanta History Center highlights the painting through a variety of lenses and experiences designed to offer a 360-degree perspective of our shared history through Atlanta’s largest painting, using Civil War imagery as a tool.
Visitors are greeted by an introductory video as they enter Cyclorama: The Big Picture. Two levels of exhibitions look at truths and myths of the Civil War; explore the untold stories of the painting; examine the role movies and visual entertainment have on shaping perspectives of the Civil War; and provides a look at the fleeting entertainment sensation of cycloramas.
Guests enter the painting rotunda through a 7-foot-tall tunnel entry—passing underneath the diorama—before ascending an escalator to the 15-foot-tall stationary viewing platform. Here visitors get a full 360-degree view of the painting, enhanced by technology and a 12 minute theatrical, larger-than-life presentation projected onto the painting.
On Saturdays and Sundays, Cyclorama: The Big Picture will feature Meet the Past museum theatre performances, designed to bring history and the stories of everyday individuals to life.
All of these enhancements strengthen The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting as an important teaching tool. The Atlanta History Center, which currently serves 45,000 students through our education programming, is committed to serving our public schools and providing teachers with a unique educational experience for the students. All Atlanta Public Schools 5th-grade students receive free annual school tours of Cyclorama: The Big Picture.
Seeded by a lead legacy gift of $10 million from Atlantans Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker, the Atlanta History Center raised $35.2 million for the project, including $10 million for an endowment that will ensure the ongoing care and safe-keeping of The Battle of Atlanta painting and the other objects, including the locomotive Texas, over the 75-year license agreement with the City of Atlanta.
Cyclorama: The Big Picture is included in Atlanta History Center’s all-inclusive general admission ticket, which includes full access to all exhibitions, four historic houses, and 33 acres of Goizueta Gardens. Parking is free.
"A New Way to Remember the Civil War"
The New York Times
"A Painstaking Mission to Save Atlanta’s Colossal Civil War Painting"
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"The Cyclorama: How to Move a 6-ton Painting"