Tuesday, January 5, 2016

'Atlanta in 50 Objects': 6 Civil War-related items make the cut in new exhibit

Plaster figure on exhibit  (Picket photo)

Before there was a famous beverage (Coca-Cola), a Nobel Prize winner (the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) and a popular Christmas ride (the Pink Pig), there was an Atlanta down on its luck. Some 150 years ago, Atlanta was a small town knocked to its knees by the Civil War and hoping for better days.

Out of the Civil War’s ashes – as depicted by the city’s seal of a winged phoenix – rose a spirit of recovery and can-do that eventually turned the rough-edged town into a major American city. Along the way, certain people, events, businesses and cultural items gained iconic status.

The Atlanta History Center will tell the evolving city’s story in a six-month exhibit, “Atlanta in 50 Objects.” But it wasn’t curators who set out to determine the defining items to display – about 300 suggestions came from area residents.

While much of the “diverse” exhibition opening Jan. 16 resulted from ideas of a more contemporary nature – the growing Atlanta movie industry, immigration and hip-hop music – six objects have ties to the Civil War. They are:

First page of Sherman's order (Courtesy Atlanta History Center)

-- Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order #67, which expelled starving residents after the besieged city fell in early September 1864. Sherman and his soldiers had a great deal to do with the ashes. Before leaving Atlanta on the March to the Sea, his engineers destroyed everything of military value. Sherman forced remaining families to abandon their homes.

-- A 1930s plaster soldier figurine from the diorama in the foreground of the Cyclorama painting, which depicts the July 22, 1864, Battle of Atlanta.

-- A 1936 first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s classic “Gone With the Wind.”

-- A bronze model for "Atlanta from the Ashes," a 1967 sculpture by James Siegler. It was given to the city by Rich's department store. It now resides in downtown's Woodruff Park.

-- A 1936 Georgia Railroad timetable panel will make mention of the strategic importance of railroads to the city during the Civil War.

(Picket photo)
-- A small boat made from shells from the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, which showed off economic resurgence following the conflict’s devastation and sealed Atlanta’s position as capital of the “New South.”

Part of the exhibit’s intro covers the concept:

How do you tell the story of Atlanta in 50 objects? We decided the best experts were Atlantans themselves – residents who cheer the Braves and rue I-285 rush-hour traffic, who understand how Civil War losses and Civil Rights victories together helped forge the city’s unique identity.”

Howard Pousner, manager of media relations at the Atlanta History Center, said the public made thematic suggestions (such as “include the Civil War because …”) and then curators had to determine, sometimes in concert with partner institutions and companies, what was the best object to convey those themes.

While there are references to the Civil War and Atlanta’s formative years, others cover the waterfront, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Rev. King and Coca-Cola, to Hank Aaron’s 600th home run bat and a Chick-fil-A billboard cow. Several people nominated something from the 1996 Summer Games.

“Atlanta in 50 Objects” is a precursor to the April premiere of a permanent exhibition on the history of Atlanta.

(Picket photo)

Moviegoers, of course, are familiar with the screen version of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” which tells the story of a resilient woman who uses her wits and guile to deal with the Civil War’s impact on her Georgia family.

The Cyclorama diorama figure was among those fashioned between 1934 and 1936 as part of a Works Progress Administration project. Artists Weis Snell, Joseph Llorens, and Wilbur Kurtz fashioned plaster figures for a diorama as foreground for the painting. Set on a flooring of red clay, the shrubbery, cannon, track, and 128 soldiers gave the painting more realism for visitors,” the AHC says.

The painting is being moved from Grant Park to the Atlanta History Center campus in Buckhead. The public will be able to see much of its restoration in a new building.

Library of Congress

The Cotton States and International Exposition (above), held on the grounds of present-day Piedmont Park, drew nearly 1 million attendees and helped the city draw investment. The event also is remembered for the “Atlanta Compromise.” Educator and orator Booker T. Washington did not explicitly challenge segregation. Rather, he advised African-Americans to seek economic security before equality.

As for Sherman, the South’s favorite bogeyman? He issued his order on Sept. 8, 1864. More than 1,600 individuals, who had suffered privation and bombardment, were registered and ordered to leave later that month. The order also authorized the construction of new Federal defensive works around Atlanta.
Major Gen. Sherman
Mayor James Calhoun pleaded for Sherman to withdraw the evacuation order. “You know the woe, the horror, and the suffering cannot be described by words.”

The general’s reply included this line: “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it. …”

“Atlanta in 50 Objects” will be on display from January 16 to July 10 at the Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road NW. The exhibition is included in a general admission ticket. 

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