By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.net

Sal Cilella proudly refers to the Atlanta History Center as Buckhead’s premiere cultural attraction — 33 acres of prime real estate he calls Buckhead’s Central Park.

Cilella is a Civil War buff and has been in the museum business for 38 years. He came to the Atlanta Historical Society in 2006 as chief operating officer and became chief executive officer in 2007, succeeding Jim Brunn, who shepherded a museum expansion that includes the Olympic Games permanent exhibit.

Cilella recounted the past of the Historical Society and History Center for the Buckhead Business Association on July 10, but he is much more excited about the future, including physical improvements to the History Center’s campus and major exhibits in the next few years.

He talks with passion about a five-year grounds plan “to make completely coherent and cohesive the entire 33 acres.” He said the project will cost $5 million to $10 million.

“We are going to build a bridge from one side of the campus to the other that will be user-friendly and ecologically friendly and will span the Quarry Garden. You will be able to walk up in the treetops and look down on the Quarry Garden as you go from the museum over to the Swan House,” Cilella said.

The grounds program will include the redesign of some of the trails. “We also are going to do a trail for kids. That will include way-finding stations so that kids can learn about the environment, learn about history, learn about the Quarry Garden itself and will take them past the Swan House, Tully Farm and the rest.”

He said the center has permits from the city and some seed money through the Forward Arts Foundation.

The overall plan calls for uniform fencing around the 33 acres, reconfiguring the front drop-off area and front desk area to make those more welcoming.

“That is the No. 1 thing on the agenda,” he said. No. 2 is to build a new visitors center at the Margaret Mitchell House in Midtown.

Another major project Cilella has on his agenda deals with the Cyclorama.

“The city owns the Cyclorama. We don’t,” he said. “The city has come to us before to help them save it. We have got to see it saved in the next seven to 10 years because it is in dire need of restoration.”

Cilella is contacting the city about “some ideas we have for saving it. As Atlanta’s History Center, we have an obligation to weigh in on this issue.”

Could those ideas include moving the Cyclorama to the History Center in Buckhead?

“I told the city and all the people who are interested, ‘It ain’t great art, folks. It is a great historical artifact. It ought to be in a history museum,’ ” Cilella said.

At its Grant Park location, the Cyclorama draws probably 90,000 people a year. Zoo Atlanta next door draws 700,000 to 800,000, he said. “Closeness does not imply immediate or guaranteed visitation.”

Cilella added: “We can tell the Battle of Atlanta better than anyone. We have the best collection of Civil War materials outside of Gettysburg. Gettysburg has 35,000 Civil War objects but can only exhibit 1,000 now.”

The History Center can exhibit many more than that, he said.

He said his staff has figured out a place on the History Center campus where the Cyclorama could fit. But it would cost $25 million to $30 million to move it there. “The Gettysburg Cyclorama has been moved, and it cost $8 million to restore. The remaining cost would be in construction of the building. We already own the land.”

Another factor is that the zoo wants to expand, so moving the Cyclorama might be a win-win situation.

Cilella has not yet discussed moving the Cyclorama with the city or the center’s board of trustees.

Among things that are certain in the future, Cilella pointed to a number of exciting exhibits through 2011.

“We have packaged four exhibits together, much like what the High Museum did with the Louvre, for an exhibit called ‘Civil War to Civil Rights,’ ” he said. One part is a show on Lee and Grant, and two parts are on Lincoln, whose 200th birthday is next year.

In addition is a show called “Let Your Motto Be Resistance” on civil rights workers in the 1960s and ’70s.

“We also have a show we are putting together ourselves that has 320 early photographs of African-Americans — very rare, very unusual photographs,” he said. “We are going to do a show much like the Martin Luther King show where you can get up real close to the images. The photographs show a human side to something you might not understand unless you got up real close to it. All of these will work together to form what we are calling ‘Civil War to Civil Rights.’ ”

This winter, Cilella said, Jim Henson will be at the History Center. Not the late puppeteer himself, but his creations will be there during the Christmas holiday. “The Muppets will be there in all their wacky glory.”

A bonus will be a Norman Rockwell show called “Home for the Holidays.”

For 2011, Cilella said, “we are working on a show called ‘Barbecue.’ We have federal grants for this. Our staff is eating it up.”

He said he mentioned the exhibit to colleagues in the museum field, and about 10 of them want it after its Atlanta run. The exhibit “will examine the political, cultural and regional influences on barbecue,” he said. “We have a lot on our plate.”

The History Center was incorporated in 1926, “and for 40 years it wandered in the wilderness,” Cilella told the group of Buckhead business leaders. By 1966, the 22-acre Inman estate became available in Buckhead, and the society moved into the Swan House. In 1990, it ran a capital campaign that raised $16 million, and the organization changed its name to the Atlanta History Center. It has grown to 33 acres with the acquisition of the Tully Smith Farm and recently built the Olympic wing and added the Overlook and a hall for bringing in exhibitions.

“My chief goal is to become a premier historical society in the country,” Cilella said. “Museums are facing all kinds of challenges, including declining visitorship, increased competition, the impact of technology on audience engagement and the vastly changing field of fundraising. We have to find new ways to relate to younger audiences.”

The primary focus of the Atlanta History Center is on a strategic, comprehensive three-year plan. “We are thinking big at a time when we feel we need to enhance our image and attract new audiences. We must develop a plan that will make the History Center more family-friendly. We must attract a younger and more diverse audience.”

The King exhibit about a year and a half ago drew 74,000 visitors. The Ben Franklin exhibit drew 40,000 and brought 1,000 more family memberships.

“The King exhibition told us that we have a market in a more diverse audience, and we need to respond to that,” Cilella said.

“Ben Franklin told us in no uncertain terms that we need to do better with interactive exhibits. The exhibits at the Atlanta History Center are 14 years old, and they are already in the Middle Ages. That is how fast technology is impacting our business,” he said. “Kids are on iPhones, on iPods, on the Internet. They are not excited about something in a glass case. They want action, they want the interactivity, they want to see maps change in front of their eyes. We need to upgrade all of our exhibits.”