Today, the Atlanta History Center opens Cyclorama: The Big Picture, featuring the fully restored The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting. Depicting the 1864 Battle of Atlanta—a major turning point in the Civil War—the 360-degree cyclorama is one of the world’s largest oil paintings, standing 49 feet tall, stretching longer than a football field and weighing 10,000 pounds. Enhanced by multimedia storytelling technologies—including a 12-minute, larger-than-life presentation projected onto the painting—the exhibit is housed in the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building at the Atlanta History Center, a newly erected, custom-built 25,000-square-foot space. The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama is one of only two cycloramas in the United States, the other being The Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama, 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. They were created as money-making attractions and a form of entertainment—the IMAX of their time. The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama is a full-color, 3D illusion designed to transport the viewer onto the battlefield. The painting visually tells the story of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, but over time it has evolved into a significant artifact that has its own fascinating story, as its historical journey is indeed part of the “big picture.”
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 100 years. Restoration highlights include:
- Re-creation of three missing sections, adding 2,908 square feet to the painting to return it to its original size of 14,952 square feet
- Erection of a 15-foot stationary platform upon which visitors can view the composition at eye-level
- Re-creation of a 120-foot, custom-made diorama landscape, including 128 original restored diorama figures from 1936
- Corrected hyperbolic shape through re-tensioning, conveying the originally intended 3D effect
Created at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee by 17 German artists in 1866, 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 the painting relocated to Atlanta in 1892, it was slightly modified and advertised as “the only Confederate victory ever painted” to appeal to Southern audiences with Confederate sympathies. The Battle of Atlanta was not a Confederate victory, and those 1892 changes—like repainting fleeing Confederates in gray uniforms to depict fleeing Union soldiers in blue uniforms—were repainted yet again in the 1930s to accurately portray the original design.
Throughout the 127 years that the cyclorama 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 New South’s capital, 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 have viewed it in different times and places throughout the years.
With this new exhibit, the Atlanta History Center intends to channel 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 will use 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. They do not always provide the full perspective of events and people.
“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. “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 raised $35.78 million for the project, including $10 million for an endowment that will ensure the ongoing care of The Battle of Atlanta painting and related objects, including the locomotive Texas, during the 75-year license agreement with the City of Atlanta. Additionally, $2.6 million was dedicated to painting conservation and restoration and $2.9 million to safely relocate the painting.
Visitors are greeted by an introductory video as they enter Cyclorama: The Big Picture. Two levels of exhibitions detail 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 provide a look at the fleeting entertainment sensation of cycloramas.
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, enhanced by a 12-minute, larger-than-life theatrical presentation projected onto the painting. In addition, visitors can use handheld tablets to point at various scenes on the painting which offer more detailed information.
Cyclorama: The Big Picture is included in Atlanta History Center’s all-inclusive general admission ticket, which includes full access to all exhibitions, three historic houses and 33 acres of Goizueta Gardens. Parking is free. Souper Jenny Café, 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 access the platform and view the painting. Advance tickets available online at AtlantaHistoryCenter.com.