For historians, researching the past and finding ties to the present is a cherished hobby, job, and duty. This is especially important when dealing with one-of-a-kind artifacts from critical moments in history. For the city of Atlanta, understanding and experiencing its past is not just for tourism; it is an integral part of the city’s identity and community. So, when the Atlanta History Center sought to create an engaging, larger-than-life experience for its gigantic Cyclorama exhibit, they relied on technology to tell the story of this precious diorama and lead visitors on a journey back through time.
Originally created in 1886, the 49-foot-tall by 371-foot-wide panoramic diorama depicts the famous Battle of Atlanta, a critical moment in the Civil War. Complete with lifelike three-dimensional statues and elements, the full-color illusion is designed to transport the viewer onto the historic battlefield. Over its 133-year lifespan, the colossal work has gone through revisions to the canvas’ content (since restored) and multiple display venues before finally coming to rest in the Atlanta History Center. With such a storied past, the AHC wanted to create an exhibit that would not only tell the story of the diorama and how it became an artifact, but also the “big picture” of the Atlanta Campaign and its importance in both local and national history.
“The painting depicts an important moment in the context of American history,” said Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties at the AHC. “Had the South won at Atlanta, Lincoln could have lost his reelection; the nation’s appetite for the war was dwindling, and this moment could have ended the war in a stalemate. We wanted to portray that importance on a scale that would complement the piece.”
To put this painting into the broader perspective of American history, the AHC developed a companion exhibition, complete with related historical pieces and a large-scale film by Cortina Productions that tells stories of people affected by the battle. To implement the film, they reached out to the Atlanta-based AV design specialists at CEI.
Known for being an excellent design-build AV integrator and contractor at the national level, CEI strove to bring premier quality to this hometown venue. “When we first saw the size and scale of the painting, we knew this was a one-of-a-kind project,” said Val Dempsey, president of CEI. “Then, when the AHC explained that it was important that we use Atlanta-based companies, we started thinking of ways to make the experience truly unique and memorable.”
CEI’s design called for a seamless, 160-degree display projected directly onto the canvas. This would allow the final product to balance the sheer size of the painting, while fitting the projected content into one field of view that visitors could easily enjoy. “This design called for a complex five-projector image displaying on a surface that curves in two directions, with no two distances from the lenses exactly the same,” Dempsey said. To accomplish this task, CEI integrated Digital Projection’s HIGHlite LASER II projectors.
“We needed projectors that were bright enough to overcome the painted elements, but also with exceptional warp and edge-blending capabilities to get this right,” Dempsey said. “We felt that Digital Projection would have the best product and the best support. DP’s engineers were instrumental in helping with the design, testing, and implementation.”
Augmented by 16.1 channel surround sound audio, multi-level lighting, and AV control systems, the HIGHlite LASER II projectors transform the 133-year-old painting into a vibrant and engaging 12-minute show. Using historical imagery and reenacted battle sequences, the movie guides visitors through the remarkable story of the painting, the fleeting entertainment sensation of cycloramas, and examines the role movies and visual entertainment have had on shaping perspectives, memory, myth, and interpretations of the Civil War.
Following each show, the HIGHlite units project modern day locations onto the landscape of the battle, offering guests an intimate perspective of how this event resonates with present-day Atlanta. “I’ve seen people gasp when they realize that the battle was fought right in the middle of the city, often at places they’ve been to,” McQuigg said. “They see important landmarks for the city and really get a sense of wonder at what it would have been like.”
The reaction to the new Cyclorama experience has been overwhelmingly positive for both the AHC and its guests. “The show and painting blend together seamlessly; the projectors really add to the importance and effect of the artifact,” McQuigg said. “It’s quite a moving experience.”
“The feedback we’ve gotten has been exceptional with everyone being blown away by the presentation,” Dempsey said. “It’s truly an awesome AV experience.”