Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Gettysburg Cyclorama Experience

Controversy seems to haunt every discussion of the new Gettysburg Visitors Center. Most recently, the Gettysburg Foundation increased the price of the combined ticket for the Cyclorama, film, and museum to $10.00. Some may wonder if the attraction, as they have styled it, is worth it. Regardless of your opinion of the Foundation or its most recent actions, see the Cyclorama. This experience alone is worth the price of admission.

I read last year of the painstaking efforts to restore the painting, and its surrounding diorama, to its original form. I viewed it many years ago in the old building atop Cemetery Ridge, and left somewhat underwhelmed. Something was missing. Through the efforts of conservationists and modern artists, what was lost in the experience has been restored.

I ascended the stairs to the viewing platform for the Cyclorama from the movie theater where I viewed A New Birth of Freedom for the first time. I found it a good introduction to the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the meaning of both for modern Americans. If you have trouble accepting slavery as the root cause of it all, take your Ipod with you. The film is not intended for diehards or those who want to debate the finer points of Civil War scholarship, nor should it be. The Park Service is trying to reach the majority of visitors, including those who cannot place the Civil War in its proper decade, so compromises and allowances had to be made.

Stepping on to the viewing platform, I moved forward to the railing. Happily, I had positioned myself almost directly in front of Armistead’s breakthrough. The platform places the viewer opposite the middle ground of the painting. Below, fences, the wreckage of battle, and even soldiers emerge from the painting. The effect of the diorama is truly remarkable.

The narration begins and lighting illuminates the center of the action. The painting itself comes alive with booming cannon and exploding artillery shells, and all seems bathed in a strange reddish hue that enhances these effects. The action is everywhere. Rebel cannons boom in the distance while Federal guns nearby open in reply. At length, the bombardment subsides, and rebel infantry steps off. I focus on a figure kneeling below, and I am sure he is about to rise to his feet in defiance of the gray tide. In the strange light bathing the chamber in an eerie glow, the illusion is complete. The rebels continue to close, until Armistead’s last gallant stride falters in a storm of shot and shell and frenzied shouts of confusion, victory, and defeat.

In what seems only a moment, the charge is over. The rooms brightens, and the time to explore the painting on my own is all too brief. My thoughts on leaving focus on the fury and the frenzy of Pickett’s Charge (I still use the old name), on what the men in blue and gray achieved and suffered on that hot July afternoon so long ago. One other thing comes to mind as I think back on my visit to the Cyclorama – I need to see this again.

A note - I am finally getting back to normal after unexpected back surgery at the end of June, and planning some late sumer battlefield jaunts, so stay tuned.

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