Depicting the 1864 Battle of Atlanta — a Civil War turning point — the fully restored The Battle of Atlanta painting is at the heart of the Atlanta History Center’s Cyclorama: The Big Picture experience. The painting rises 49 feet, stretches 371 feet (longer than a football field) and weighs 10,000 pounds.
Enhanced by multimedia storytelling technologies, including a 12-minute introductory film projected onto across a 160-foot-long swath of the painting, the exhibit is housed in the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building, a newly erected, custom-built 25,000-square-foot circular structure. The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama is one of only two cycloramason display in the United States, the other being The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, making the Atlanta History Center home to one of America’s largest historic treasures.
In the 1880s, cycloramas—massive 360-degree paintings—provided immersive experiences analogous to today’s virtual reality.
The new exhibit was created to give visitors an experience true to the one offered when the cyclorama was created in 1886, an experience no one has witnessed in more than a century. Restoration highlights include:
Created at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee by 17 German and Austrian artists in 1886, 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, the painting originally depicted the battle from a Northern perspective—as a heroic Union victory—to appeal to Northern audiences. When it was relocated to Atlanta in 1892, The Battle of Atlanta was slightly modified and advertised as “the only Confederate victory ever painted” to appeal to Southern audiences with Confederate sympathies. The battle was not a Confederate victory, of course, and those 1892 changes—such as repainting captured Confederates being led off the battlefield by Union soldiers to look like fleeing Union soldiers in blue uniforms—were repainted yet again in the 1930s to accurately portray the original design.
With this new exhibit, the Atlanta History Center channels these varying viewpoints into a deeper conversation.
“History is messy, but it has a lot to teach us—if we let it,” said Sheffield Hale, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlanta History Center. “What makes Cyclorama: The Big Picture so cool is the surprise factor of the painting’s history — the ‘how and why’ it was created, and its various interpretations over time. We are challenging visitors to explore their own perceptions and misperceptions of history. Facts are facts, but the way we view the past varies widely.”
The 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.”
Through exhibitions, rare artifacts, historic images, immersive technology, digital resources, videos and museum theater, visitors are encouraged to look critically at a range of Civil War imagery and consider how images and entertainment can influence how we perceive history. Photography, art, movies, marketing and media all provoke emotions and can generate incorrect, or incomplete, ideas about historical events.
“These shifting viewpoints are precisely what make The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama such a distinctive and important artifact,” said Atlanta History Center Senior Military Historian Gordon Jones, who curated Cyclorama: The Big Picture. “No other object can so vividly tell the story of how attitudes toward the Civil War have been shaped and reshaped over the past 150 years. In fact, it is the largest single artifact in existence to demonstrate the power of the use and misuse of historical memory.”
Seeded by a $10 million gift from Atlantans Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker, the Atlanta History Center’s cyclorama campaign raised $35.78 million, including $10 million for an endowment that will ensure the ongoing care of the painting and related objects, including the 1856 locomotive Texas, during a 75-year license agreement with the City of Atlanta.
Guests enter the painting rotunda through a tunnel, passing underneath the diorama before ascending an escalator to the 15-foot stationary viewing platform. Here, visitors immediately experience a full 360-degree view of the painting. The 12-minute introductory video film is just one aspect of the extensive interpretation. Two levels of exhibitions just outside the rotunda detail truths and myths of the Civil War, explore the untold stories of the painting, examine the role movies and visual entertainment had on shaping perspectives of the Civil War, and provide a look at the fleeting entertainment sensation of cycloramas. Additionally, exhibitgoers can access monitors beneath the viewing platform to explore the historic facts about various scenes in the painting, and to explore different aspects of the painting in detail, down to individual brushstrokes. An exhibition detailing how the painting was created and restored also is located under the platform.
The Atlanta History Center further enhances the experience through weekend performances of a series of Meet the Past museum theatre monologues, including journalist Demark Mitchell, a composite character based on the written and documented perspectives of post-Reconstruction-era journalists and intellectuals; Paul Atkinson, the Georgia promoter who purchased The Battle of Atlanta painting and brought it south; and German artist Franz Schroeter, a composite character based on painters who worked for the American Panorama Company.
Cyclorama: The Big Picture also incorporates several technological aspects, some of which are available online for use in classrooms, at home, or for people who are unable to make it to the exhibition in person. War in Our Backyards, presented on touchscreens in the exhibit area underneath the viewing platform, provides an examination of important people, places, and events during the Civil War in Georgia, with then and now views and archival images. (It’s also available online at http://www.georgiacampaignmap.com/.) The Civil War in Georgia, 1864-1865, in the upstairs gallery, is a time lapse map that shows all troop movements, skirmishes, and battles in the state
Cyclorama: The Big Picture is included in Atlanta History Center’s general admission ticket, which includes full access to all exhibitions, three historic houses and the 33-acre Goizueta Gardens. Parking is free. The Souper Jenny cafe, BRASH Coffee and the Atlanta History Center’s gift shop and bookstore are accessible to all visitors and do not require tickets.
Timed tickets are required to view the painting. Advance tickets available online at AtlantaHistoryCenter.com.