Atlanta's Cyclorama broadens programming to attract diverse audience

ATLANTA — Atlanta’s Cyclorama, a mammoth panoramic painting that memorializes the Battle of Atlanta, is something of a Rorschach test.

It was painted in 1886 by German immigrants in Milwaukee and commissioned by a Union officer with political aspirations. He wanted to document his role in the decisive victory and ride that glory to a vice presidency.

Though it was intended to appeal to a Northern audience, when the painting made its way to Atlanta it was embraced as an emblem of the “Lost Cause” sensibility. Like the memorial on Stone Mountain, it became part of the city’s Confederate iconography. (In the diorama that forms the painting’s foreground is a soldier styled to resemble Clark Gable.)

That attitude began to change by 1979 when the painting underwent a $15 million renovation, spearheaded by Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Today the city’s programming at the Grant Park attraction signals an effort to attract audiences across a broader spectrum. In addition to hourly tours of the painting, this year there will be lectures, movies and performances on topics such as gay soldiers in the Civil War, the role of African-American soldiers on both sides of the conflict, and the story of how the demand for uniforms spurred Jewish garment merchants to commercial success.

Monica Prothro, administrator at the Cyclorama, said the attraction began pumping up its live events four years ago in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

“We wanted to reintroduce the Cyclorama to those who had been here before but hadn’t been since they were kids,” she said. “We also wanted to introduce the Cyclorama to those who don’t have a clue what it is.”

This year there are almost two dozen events hosted or sponsored by the Cyclorama.

On Feb. 20 University of Massachusetts historian Barbara Krauthamer discusses her new book, “Black Slaves, Indian Masters.” In it, she writes of the troubling evidence that many Southeastern tribes, including the Creek and Cherokee, kept black slaves, which they refused to relinquish, even as they were forced west on the Trail of Tears.

Other events include:

  • A clinic for history teachers will demonstrate how the Civil War prefigured the battle for civil rights.
  • Opera Ebony will present a “narrated concert” highlighting the experience of African-Americans during the war.
  • U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey will discuss the personal and the political in her poetic reading of “Native Guard.”

“People that may not have thought about going, we’re trying to tease them in,” said Camille Russell Love, director of the mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “We’re going to give them a different reason to come.”

Enlarging the audience for the Cyclorama has been on the minds of city leaders for several years. For one thing, it is a city treasure. It is also a remarkable object, and in this country there is only one other like it, at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

In 2008 conservators completed a five-year, $15 million renovation of the Gettysburg painting. Most of the battlefield’s 1.2 million yearly visitors also stop in to see the painting.

Atlanta’s Cyclorama and Civil War Museum, which also includes the Texas, the train Confederates used to recover the General in the Great Locomotive Chase, only draws about 50,000 visitors a year.

Back in 2012 a task force of business leaders, historians and city officials met to discuss the fate of the Atlanta painting, with an eye toward emulating Gettysburg’s success.

Among their recommendations were moving the painting to a new building in the downtown tourist corridor or moving it to a new building connected to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead.

Both options would cost tens of millions of dollars. Last among their recommendations was keeping the painting in Grant Park and renovating it there.

The city hasn’t explicitly adopted any of the recommendations yet. “As of today, the Cyclorama will stay where it is,” said Love.

Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the History Center, said capturing historical tourism isn’t an easy bet. The Ohio attraction is successful because the battlefield itself draws history-focused visitors.

Atlanta’s battlefield is buried under high-rises and shopping centers. This erasure is among the things that makes the Atlanta painting so valuable as a historical document.

Secondly, said Hale, the painting is deeply relevant to Atlanta because of the moment it portrays.

In bloody, gritty detail, the painting captures the climactic turning point of the Civil War, a battle inside our city limits that essentially re-elected Lincoln, ended slavery and brought the South back into the Union. Atlanta was at the fulcrum in this turning point of history.

The painting is also magnificent to behold. Four stories high, 388 feet long, it is a sweeping, cylindrical spectacle, a sort of 19th century IMAX in surround-vision.

But most important, said Hale, is what the Cyclorama tells us about the malleable nature of memory.

“You take an object built in Wisconsin for a Northern audience to celebrate a Northern victory. It is then transported down to the South and becomes interpreted in the early 20th century as a Lost Cause type artifact. It’s the same painting, same event, but different pairs of eyes give it a different spin.”

Today, said Hale, it is interpreted with a broader view, as a snapshot of that moment in time. “What you’ve got is a gigantic example of a historical artifact that, as times change, the way people perceive it changes. I don’t know of another object that’s like that.”

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