Long, long ago – before motion pictures, "The History Channel" and 3D – cycloramas were the storytelling spectacles of the time. The huge murals presented sweeping historical scenes and singular moments of intense personal bravery or sacrifice.
European artists in the late 19th century created the building-sized round paintings. The artists often traveled to the locales to ensure historical accuracy.
Most of the paintings are gone – lost to time, the elements and the evolution of mass entertainment.
Only two remain in the United States. They feature scenes from the battles of Gettysburg and Atlanta in the Civil War.
Although few people today even know what a cyclorama is, the two masterpieces remain cultural treasures.
Gettysburg’s has glittered more brightly in recent years.
The mural (photo above) reopened in 2008 -- after a $15 million restoration -- in a different building. After receiving a new backing it was, for the first time, properly stretched, ensuring even stress on the fabric. Technicians had to re-create 14 feet of "missing" sky.
“It really is the star attraction of the museum and the visitor center,” said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman at Gettysburg National Military Park.
For $10.50 ($12.50 starting Jan. 2, 2012), an adult visitor can take in the Cyclorama, film and museum, Lawhon said.
Some 1.2 million visitors come every year to the battlefield set among the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania.
The Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum (right), nestled in the historic Grant Park neighborhood, draws only about 75,000 patrons a year, a far cry from twice that number 10 years ago.
It lives on a $500,000 annual budget, with little or no foundation help, unlike Gettysburg.
Times are tough for governments and museums. The state of Georgia and Atlanta have invested few funds to observe or market the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, with a focus on 2014.
Some 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference, the Atlanta Cyclorama is the largest painting in the country. It was last overhauled 30 years ago for about $11 million. Some observers said the mural, painted in 1885-86, is deteriorating and needs significant work, according to an Atlanta Business Chronicle article.
“There are a few ripples forming in the painting,” Cyclorama marketing manager Yakingma Robinson told the Picket.
But otherwise, he said, “it’s in pretty good condition,” a comment echoed by a member of the local neighborhood group.
With concerns about attendance, funding and the condition of the painting and exhibits, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed this year assembled a task force to study solutions. A small delegation, including a staff member with the separate Atlanta History Center, last week paid a visit to Gettysburg.
Several options are on the table in Atlanta -- including new revenue models, an estimated $10 million restoration or a more high-profile location.
Exhibits -- strong on old maps but little interaction with patrons -- could use a breath of fresh air.
Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recently wrote about his visit to the Cyclorama.
“The Cyclorama looks tired — from the seating, to the diorama to the painting itself,” Riley wrote. “Even the narrated description of the battle, which sounds dated and some claim isn’t entirely accurate, crackles through the hum of aging speakers. Last weekend, I watched as a local restoration group did some annual maintenance work on the diorama, and it’s clear that the place has seen better days.”
The museum adjoins the Atlanta Zoo which, according to published reports, may one day have use for the property.
Key to any effort is support from foundations.
Areas under consideration for a possible move are the Atlanta History Center campus in Buckhead, the former World of Coca-Cola site in Underground Atlanta and a stretch of popular venues near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown.
Gettysburg has yet another advantage when it comes to luring visitors.
It is a large battlefield, where men in blue and gray slugged it out over three days in July 1863. Tradition holds the Union victory was the turning point in the four-year conflict that claimed more than 600,000 lives.
Sprawling Atlanta, as most people know, has precious little battleground left.
“It hurts when it comes to creating a full customer experience,” Robinson told the Picket.
At one time, the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum had 15 employees. It’s down to 3 full-time employees and one part-time employee. It operates only five days a week.
Still, Robinson does what he can with available resources at the museum, which has been in the same location since 1921. He noted a small increase in attendance over the past year.
The museum also houses the Texas, famous for the Great Locomotive Chase in 1862. Robinson is organizing a day of activities in April 2012 to mark the 150th anniversary of the chase.
“We’re doing good considering the economy,” Robinson said.
“I’ve come to learn it’s a harder sell to people who don’t have an interest, he said.
The Atlanta Cyclorama, therefore, targets international tourists, senior citizens and school groups. Adult tickets cost $10.
Like the painting in Gettysburg, Atlanta’s features a diorama in the foreground, complete with models of artillery pieces, soldiers and equipment.
One soldier features the likeness of actor Clark Gable, star of the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind.”
Sitting on the 184-seat viewing platform is like a trip back in time – to a sweltering day in July 1864. The mural, all 9,334 pounds of it, is epic in scale and focus.
“The painting takes in a wide sweep of the area: the skyline of Atlanta, Kennesaw Mountain, Stone Mountain, and the smoke of a cavalry fight at Decatur,” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. “Details of the battle are as if the viewer stood just inside the Fifteenth Corps lines at about 4:30 p.m. on July 22.
“Confederates have broken through the Union lines and are resisting a Union counterattack. A prominent figure is the man who commissioned the painting, Gen. John 'Blackjack' Logan, galloping heroically to the battlefront ahead of reinforcements that will restore his lines.”
The focal point of the painting depicts fighting about a mile and a half from Grant Park.
The mural has been in Grant Park, just southeast of downtown, since the mid-1890s. And that’s where it should stay, according to an online petition and Paul Simo, historic committee chairman with the Grant Park Neighborhood Association, whose president serves on the mayor’s task force.
Grant Park is a public park named for Lemuel P. Grant, the donor of the park land and a Confederate engineer who surveyed the defensive fortifications around Atlanta. Tidy historic homes, many Victorian, surround the park.
Simo cites three reasons for keeping the museum where it is: Its historic ties to Southeast Atlanta; its history within the Grant Park neighborhood and a potentially larger economic impact, with “niche heritage tourism.”
The venue should be more dynamic, with enhanced exhibits that tell more of the neighborhood’s history, Simo said.
“You can step out of the painting into the next chapter where history continues,” he said.
While the Atlanta Cyclorama has a friendly relationship with the surrounding neighborhood, there appears to be little formal interaction.
“Our neighborhood is committed to do whatever we can do,” Simo said.
One idea, he said, is for bicyclists to have organized rides through Grant Park, East Atlanta and Kirkwood, all neighborhoods that saw heavy fighting. The Battle of Atlanta Commemoration Organization annually marks the anniversary of the battle with a variety of events in southeast Atlanta.
Even if the decision was made to move, there’s not enough time for a new museum to be built before the sesquicentennial, according to Simo. “I don’t want to see anything pushed through.”
“Our neighborhoods are the battlefield,” Simo told the Picket. “Hundreds of soldiers died all over here."
Gettysburg Cyclorama photo by Rick Lewis, National Park Service.