The Cyclorama

This past week we got to do some Atlanta tourism that we had been saving up: the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum in Grant Park, next to the zoo. The Civil War part is what you see when you come in; there is an interesting collection of uniforms, swords, guns, and lots of old photographs. The showpiece is the Texas, one of the two locomotives* involved in the Great Locomotive Chase (the Disney movie is shown nearby on constant loop).

After perusing the collection, you are invited into a theatre and shown a fourteen-minute movie about the Atlanta Campaign, with animated maps and Civil War re-enactors, and narrated by James Earl Jones. After this you are ushered into the Cyclorama itself: a round room with a 360-degree painting (measuring 42 feet by 358 feet) of the Battle of Atlanta. In the center is a bank of stadium seats which turns so that you can get a good look at the whole thing; a narrator explains what is going on while various details are lit up. Between the painting and the seating is a diorama “continuing” the painting in the third dimension. I’m glad to have seen this because the whole thing is about to be dismantled and moved to the Atlanta History Center. Unfortunately they did not allow photographs.

But I’m not really a Civil War buff, and the panoramic painting, while an interesting period piece, cannot really compete with the manifold entertainments available to us today. Apparently, in the nineteenth century, before the advent of movies or the zoopraxiscope, such things could serve as a fun and educational evening out. They did not need to be 360-degree single-vantage paintings; my wife and I once saw one being restored at the St. Louis Art Museum that was some eight feet wide and 300 feet long, and featured a number of scenes along the Mississippi River. The presenters would have set it up on stage between a pair of rollers, and scrolled through the scenes while a lecturer explained them. As I say, not exactly a CSI marathon.

*The other locomotive, the General, can be seen at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Marietta, where the Disney movie is also on constant loop. Now with a name like that you might think that this must be some sort of local-talent “attraction” put on by the county historical society as a compromise between its train-buff president and its Civil-War-buff secretary. But you’d be wrong. The Great Locomotive Chase forms the central theme; the museum (housed in the former Glover Machine Works, and right next to a functioning railroad) features extensive exhibits of the use of railroads during the Civil War, in addition to the standard collection of Civil War flags, uniforms, guns, etc. It’s very well presented, and deserves its Smithsonian affiliation.