Our understanding of history is not fixed. It is subject to revision, sometimes to suit the purposes of a particular ideology and sometimes, one hopes, for the purposes of approaching something closer to the truth. Consider the changing fate of the Atlanta Cyclorama, a large-scale cylindrical image created to offer visitors a 360-degree view of one of the key battles of the Civil War.
This immense hand-painted work was first put on public display in Milwaukee in 1886, some 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, a Northern victory that made possible Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s momentous “march to the sea.” Seventeen German artists labored five months on the 49-foot-tall canvas, which weighs almost 5 tons.
When the painting was moved to Atlanta in 1892 and some sections hastily reworked, the cyclorama was touted as the visual recreation of an important Confederate victory, an argument contrary to fact but in keeping with a regional ideology known as the “Lost Cause.” And thus the painting remained fixed in the minds of most Southern visitors well into the 20th century. Even in the 1980s, when I last experienced the Atlanta Cyclorama in its old location in Grant Park, much of the context on site extolled the nobility of the Southern effort in defending regional values.
This interpretation proved as leaky as the roof in which the cyclorama was housed, and city leaders decided in the early part of this century to move the gigantic painting to a new location and have it fully restored, including the removal of varnish that had yellowed the surface over time and the addition of sections that had been lost due to the space constraints of its old repository. The decision was also made to give the work a more accurate, more comprehensive context.
In February, the Atlanta Cyclorama reopened, housed now in a purpose-built rotunda at the Atlanta History Center in the Buckhead section of the city. I dropped by the new location just last month, and I can attest to the fact that a visit is well worth the time and effort.
Tickets are programmed on the half hour since the viewing platform, which rises 15 feet from the surface of the floor, is constructed to fit only 60 visitors at a time. Entrance is through a passageway that permits one to take a peek behind the canvas to view some of the cables and weights used to keep the image taut. After ascending via elevator to the platform above, visitors are regaled with a short, IMAX-quality film about the battle and the evolution of the painting, which captures a pivotal moment in the siege of Atlanta. In this case, the 19th-century artists chose a counterattack led by Union Gen. “Black Jack” Logan at 4:30 p.m. on July 22, 1864 along a railroad line leading to the city. The Confederate-defended Troup-Hurt House appears in the center of the conflict.
After the 12-minute film, one is free to circle the space, take photos and experience a particularly dramatic moment in one of the four battles that culminated in the surrender of the city in September 1864. There is also an opportunity to scan the canvas at floor level, getting up close to the 128 plaster figures that were added at the base of the painting during the 1934-36 restoration. The handiwork of Wilbur Kurtz, who served as a historical consultant on David O Selznick’s film adaptation of “Gone with the Wind”– Kurtz also had an interesting South Carolina connection that I explore in my book “Circling the Savannah”– the three-dimensional figures were meant to add a greater sense of verisimilitude to the overall visual effect.
Along with the cyclorama itself, there is a large exhibition gallery featuring a host of artifacts related to the Battle of Atlanta, its various commemorations and the story of the painting itself. The Atlanta History Center curators are to be commended for their attempts to deepen our collective understanding of how our record of the past is complicated by perspective.
Tickets to the Atlanta History Center entitle one not only to view the Atlanta Cyclorama but also to enjoy the main building’s other exhibits, four historic houses and 33 acres of gardens. Hours of operation are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5:30 p.m. Interest in the cyclorama is currently running very high. When we bought our tickets on site just as the center’s doors opened, we still had to wait over an hour for our timed access to the rotunda that houses the painting. Nevertheless, there is plenty to see in the AHC’s other exhibition galleries, so the time went quickly.