In a gigantic room holding the 359-foot-long “Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama, workers perched along the 50-foot-high painting on lifts with paintbrushes and iPads. Using old photographs and state-of-the-art technology, they are bringing the 130-year-old painting back to life.
The historic cyclorama painting of the pivotal Civil War battle was moved to the Atlanta History Center from Grant Park last year and many visitors are eager to see it in its new home. Not many know that the cyclorama is already hanging on the circular wall of a massive new exhibit hall for the extensive restoration work that must be completed before public display.
Having recently finished removing varnish and poor repainting done in a previous restoration, the museum is gearing up to repaint the entire sky and pieces removed over the painting’s 130-year history, Gordon Jones, the museum’s senior military historian and curator, said during a Jan. 25 tour of the new cyclorama building.
The museum’s main goal is to present the painting as it was originally intended, correcting several flaws in how it was presented in Grant Park since 1921, Jones said.
“Nobody that is alive today will have seen the painting the way it was supposed to be seen,” Jones said. “The whole thing here is restore the original illusion, which was virtual reality of its time.”
The painting was “hanging like a loose shower curtain,” in the Grant Park building, ruining the illusion, museum spokesperson Howard Pousner said during the tour.
The painting, which was first displayed in Minnesota in 1886 and toured various states before ending up in Atlanta, is now pulled tight, and in an impressive display covers the circular walls of the enormous room built to hold the cyclorama. In the center of the room is a raised viewing platform where visitors will overlook a diorama installed at the base of painting. That diorama, consisting of 128 soldiers, will be a restored version of one created for the Grant Park cyclorama display, Jones said.
Technicians working on the “Battle of Atlanta” so far have removed varnish and poor repainting done during the 1979 to 1982 restoration. They will next repaint the entire sky to remove the numerous fluffy clouds that were added in 1922 to cover damage and stains, but ruin the illusion, Jones said.
“We feel like that is an essential part of restoring it to how it looked in 1886,” Jones said.
Several inches cut off the top of the painting each time the painting was moved will also be repainted. The chunks that were removed from the bottom of the painting in the 1930s after the diorama dirt caused the painting to mold will not be replaced, but covered by the new diorama, Jones said.
The experts are also using old pictures as guides to repaint two large pieces that were removed. One piece was removed after the collapse of the roof of an Edgewood Avenue building, where the painting was installed prior to its longtime Grant Park home. The second piece was removed when the painting would not fit in the Grant Park building, Jones said.
A ring of lights that shine on the painting to simulate daylight and assist the illusion will also be used for “dramatic lighting” that will occur during a periodic show that will explain what is happening in the painting. The show will be similar to the show at Grant Park, but include fewer details and be much shorter, Jones said.
Visitors will be able to go behind the painting and read information about the restoration process, Jones said.
Other related exhibits will be installed in the cyclorama building, including a historic streetlamp that is part of African American history, advertisements for the cyclorama from when it first opened and exhibits detailing how art and propaganda work to influence how historic events are remembered.
The “Texas,” a legendary locomotive dating to 1856, has been installed inside a glass enclosure in the museum’s new wing built along with the cyclorama building. The locomotive was previously a main fixture of Grant Park’s cyclorama exhibit for 88 years. The locomotive can be seen from the outside, but the exhibit has not opened yet. Once it does open, visitors will be able to climb onto the train and into the cab.
The museum, at 130 West Paces Ferry, has been at work cleaning and restoring the painting since August 2017. It hopes to open the exhibit in the fall of this year, Pousner said.
The museum raised $35 million to move and restore the painting, and has set aside $10 million of that for future restorations, which will constantly be needed, Jones said.
“There will another restoration and another restoration after that. It will never be done. But hopefully what we do is extend its life and we pass this on to the next generation,” Jones said.
The museum is offering visitors behind-the-scenes tours of the restoration process on Saturdays for the price of $75, or $50 for History Center members. For more information, see atlantahistorycenter.com.
Update: This story initially reported that the museum will push the opening date back to next winter. Howard Pousner, the museum’s spokesperson, later clarified those comments he made during the tour and said the museum still aims to open the exhibit in the fall.