Thursday, August 26, 2010

Atlanta's wartime history, technology meld nicely at interactive exhibit

Museum curators have a phrase to describe visitors and the time they spend in an exhibit.

“Streakers, strollers and scholars.”

The trick is having enough variety to make all three types of patrons happy.

The Atlanta History Center’s “War in Our Backyards: Discovering Atlanta, 1861-1865”, which allows patrons to interact with history and see an Atlanta that is long gone, accomplishes just that, says senior curator Gordon L. Jones.

Jones recalls the opening day of the Civil War exhibit earlier this month.

A boy named Max, perhaps 7 or 8, came in and, using the show’s star attraction -- an interactive, zoomable map -- figured out where his school is in relation to 1864 Atlanta.

He asked about the battles and rifle ammunition. Excited, he came back the next Saturday.

“This is the one we are after,” says Jones.

The AHS drew on its massive collection to create “Backyards,” and it is showcasing some items not displayed before. The exhibit continues through Oct. 1.

Historic maps of the battle -- some drawn by military mapmakers of the time, others by historians Wilbur G. Kurtz and Bill Scaife – fill one room.

Paintings depict downtown Atlanta.

A display features a box of Georgia red clay (left) sent to Hollywood so that crews could get the set colors right when making “Gone With the Wind.”

I was fascinated by a set of Atlanta Cyclorama work sketches used to make the huge painting-in-the-round in the 1880s.

A master sketch of the 1886 Cyclorama was photographed during its production. It was reduced and artists were given 10 sketches that depicted the entire circle. They painted from these.

The AHC saw one of the 10 on eBay in 2005, purchased it and then contacted the owner to buy four others.

“It was an absolutely good investment,” said Jones.

One of the sketches has a detail of Union Maj. Gen. John A. “Black Jack” Logan galloping into battle, with his staff on his heels.

Jones showed an area where Logan’s figure and horse originally were in the drawing, only to be moved up closer to the Battle of Atlanta.

It wasn’t uncommon for painters to “reward” people who helped pay a commission. Logan died the same year the Cyclorama was done, and Jones theorizes his old Army friends paid for a prominent position.

A small 3D theater is particularly compelling, featuring photos of wartime Atlanta, many made by photographer George Barnard.

“Most battlefield documentation of the 1860s was meant to be seen through stereo viewers, which gave the illusion of three-dimensions. In the exhibition’s theater, visitors once again see Civil War Atlanta in 3D,” the AHC says of the theater.

“To seem them [photos] in 3D gives you a whole different perspective,” said Hillary Henderson, vice president of marketing.

The exhibit’s marquee item is a large interactive display, with two companion pieces on the wall, allowing visitors to zoom in on Atlanta’s fortifications and streets during the battle. Terrain, street and satellite views can be had.

A Google map overlay gives you the modern street perspective. Georgia Tech assisted with the map, which eventually will go on the AHC’s website.

“This is the Wright Flyer” version of the map, Jones said. Photos and hot links one day will be added.

Nearby are some of the more well-known Barnard photos of Atlanta, including a curious one taken outside a store (photo below). A sign reads “Auction & Negro Sales,” obvious proof of the city's slave commerce.

A Union soldier reading something outside the door appears to be African-American. Jones is fascinated by this because Union Gen. William T. Sherman had no African-Americans serving at the front.

So the seated gentleman is a mystery man.

“Backyards” also features furniture from Atlanta homes and military sidearms and rifles.

The latter were made throughout Georgia, symbolic of its manufacturing might during the Civil War.

“The one weakness they had was they had to transport them by rail” and that was through Atlanta, said Jones. Much of the production didn’t reach Confederate troops during and after the decisive Atlanta Campaign.

Sherman’s Special Order 67, which provided details for occupation of Atlanta, is among the displays.

Jones says AHC’s artifacts, documents and maps tell the story of the Atlanta Campaign, even if the battlefields are long gone.

“We lost the 1864 city of Atlanta as soon as the battle was over,” Jones said.

Residents moved forward in rebuilding the city, erecting a new state Capitol and other buildings. Homes and businesses from the Civil War were eventually torn down.

Many folks don’t realize that Federal entrenchments built after the city’s fall in September 1864 destroyed more downtown property than during the fighting.

Jones and Hardwick are excited about the "triple crown" for the Atlanta History Center.

The upcoming Lincoln show, “With Malice Toward None,” organized by the Library of Congress, is expected to be a blockbuster. With it, “War in Our Backyards,” and the permanent “Turning Point: The American Civil War,” patrons will get a full taste of the Civil War in the coming weeks.

Jones believes in the past three decades scholars and the public have paid more attention to the importance of the Atlanta Campaign to the war’s outcome and the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.

“Now it’s getting its due,” he said.

Click here for more information on the "Backyards" exhibit.
Exhibit's page and details on Facebook.

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