How do you restore the endangered Gettysburg Cyclorama painting—all three tons and 14,600 square feet of it? Very carefully.

“Whilst in Chicago I went to see the battle of Gettysburg three times, and you may rest assured you have got a sight to see before you die. It is simply wonderful and I never before had an idea that the eye could be so deceived by paint and canvas.” The “battle” of which former Union commander John Gibbon  was writing to his fellow general, Henry J. Hunt, in September 1884 was The Battle of Gettysburg, Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s panoramic, 360-degree view of the fury and horror of Pickett’s Charge. Called a “cyclorama,” the painting captures the culmination of the three-day fight that signaled the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia. The experience was so realistic to the general that he told his colleague, “I say nothing more than the truth when I tell you it was difficult to disabuse my mind of the impression that I was actually on the ground.”

That is exactly the impression the Gettysburg Foundation and the National Park Service want tomorrow’s visitors to feel as they immerse themselves in a renewed Gettysburg battlefield experience. Placing the visitor within the sights, sounds and emotions of the most famous battle of the Civil War is an ambitious goal that the foundation hopes will be realized with the 2008 opening of the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center. According to Gettysburg Foundation President Robert C. Wilburn, the 139,000-square-foot complex, a decade in design and construction, will hold its official grand opening in the fall of 2008. A soft opening is scheduled for late April to showcase the museum’s theatrical and interactive exhibits.

The new museum complex will feature nine theater experiences, including seven different films about the battle and its aftermath. Two “voice” theaters tell the story of the battle in the words of those who experienced it. Educational and research centers also occupy the center.

Eleven galleries will feature objects and artifacts from the Gettysburg collection—one of the nation’s largest Civil War compilations. They will augment the audio presentations in providing visitors with a comprehensive picture of the war, why it happened and its consequences for the nation.

But the heart of the $125 million renewal program is the restoration of Philippoteaux’s massive 1884 cyclorama and its relocation to a new cylindrical building a third of a mile southeast of its present home. For anyone trying to contemplate the size of the painting, Wilburn places it in perspective: “It’s a little bigger than a football field.”

This spring, a team of conservators from Olin Conservation Inc. of Great Falls, Va., under the direction of company president David L. Olin, worked tirelessly on the huge rolls of paint-flaking, gluestiffened, cracked and torn canvas. They scraped off the hardened animal glue, infilling cracks, removing a wax layer and old linen backing and using synthetic glue for new backing before taking on the final, delicate job of repainting missing areas, including 14 feet of long-lost sky. When they finish, the painting will be restored to Philippoteaux’s vision—a three-dimensional diorama with a full sky, rich colors and 14, not 26, panels.

Philippoteaux’s spectacular work was a product of its time. The latter part of the 19th century was a bold age. The Victorians were not afraid of thinking and acting on a grand scale. They explored the world, undertook huge projects, and their art reflected that same grandeur. Without the benefit of movies or television, individuals in the late 19th century related to art that would give them the illusion of being in the middle of action.

Philippoteaux was skilled in creating vast panoramas—oil-on-canvas paintings of well-known themes that brought “reality” to viewers through the use of three-dimensional diorama. The artistic experience was further enhanced when observers stood on a platform positioned at the center of the presentation.

A Chicago entrepreneur, Charles Willoughby, saw an opportunity in cycloramas. With public interest in the bloody events of 20 years before reaching a peak, he commissioned Philippoteaux to paint a 360-degree panorama of Pickett’s Charge. Philippoteaux accepted and traveled to Gettysburg to research his subject in person. There, he photographed the battlefield and interviewed veterans of the fight. Back in France, he and a team of 20 other artists spent nearly two years, between 1883 and 1884, creating the vast painting, which was then installed in a specially built theater in Chicago. Following its huge financial success, Philippoteaux received a second commission from Willoughby—this version to be exhibited in Boston and housed in its own splendid structure (which today is the signature building of the Boston Center for the Arts). Altogether, Philippoteaux painted four cycloramas of Pickett’s Charge. It is the Boston painting that eventually was acquired by the National Park Service in 1942 and currently is under restoration.

History has not been kind to Philippoteaux’s painting: It has survived relocation, fire and vandalism, been chopped up into almost double its original 14 panels, and unceremoniously stuffed into a large wooden crate open to the elements. In 1910 the painting reemerged in a Newark, N.J., department store. Further indignities awaited as sections were dispersed to hang in different cities. They also suffered from well-meaning but ultimately damaging restorations, as each generation tried to solve the problems of the past. Those restorations began in 1912, when the sections were taken to Gettysburg, repaired and displayed in a leaky wooden building until the Park Service acquired the painting 30 years later.

But the painting is a survivor. When restoration is complete about a year from now, the massive, meticulously restored artwork will become the centerpiece of the new Cyclorama Theater. All of its 365 feet of circumference and 40 feet of height will be brought back to their initial freshness and glory.

Completion of the project, Wilburn estimates, will require almost $12 million, of which Congress has appropriated $7 million. The new museum and visitor complex will total around $71 million. Additional funds have been allocated to the demolition of the current complex and restoration of the landscape to its 1863 appearance. So far, the foundation has raised $93 million toward its $125 million goal for the entire renewal project, which is under Wilburn’s leadership. He brings experience in preservation, government and museums, having headed both the Carnegie Museum and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Wilburn faced a difficult decision over what to do with the existing museum, which is outdated, in an intrusive location and unable to accommodate the nearly 2 million visitors that come to Gettysburg each year. That museum and the first cyclorama building stand on a critical section of the Union battle line along Cemetery Ridge. “Almost 1,000 soldiers were killed or injured where the museum parking lots are located,” Wilburn said.

Another controversy concerned the Cyclorama Center itself, which was built in 1962 by noted California architect Richard Neutra. “Everyone agreed the painting had to be taken down and out of that building,” Wilburn said. “The canvas is in poor shape. It’s poorly installed and didn’t hang right.” There are cracks in the canvas, and the humidity, which can soar to 90 percent, cannot be controlled.

On the day of my visit, some of the panels lay stored in large rolls in preparation for their short move on a flatbed truck to the new climate-controlled building. Meanwhile, conservators worked on the backs of other panels, painstakingly removing rigid animal glue with scalpels, inch-by-inch. They knelt on large rubber pads to distribute their weight evenly on the canvas backing as they proceeded. The air was thick with the smell of the synthetic BEVA glue, which another group, protected with chemical masks, was applying to a cleaned section.

Senior conservator Debra Selden said Olin’s team already had cleaned 20 of the 26 cut-up panels. The seams weren’t straight, she explained, but the conservators have saved as much of the original as possible. They even found two sections that came from 12 feet that were missing from the width of the painting.

Large photographs of the panels displayed on a bulletin board for reference by the conservators vividly show Philippoteaux’s imagery of the carnage, mess, dirt and haze of war. Battle formations spring from the canvas with energy, guns emitting clouds of white smoke. One poignant section portrays a makeshift medical station and dead soldiers, while another shows a ruined white house, haystacks, farm buildings, a few forlorn trees and stone walls.

My guide, Dru Neil, the foundation’s director of communications and marketing, pointed out that the new sky will rise up into a canopy, while the bottom of the painting will blend seamlessly into a continuation of the picture in real objects to recapture the three-dimensional feeling that General Gibbon experienced in 1884.

Olin’s team includes four Polish conservators, who previously worked on cycloramas in Europe. Combining his logistical experience with the Poles’ working knowledge of this unique style of painting will get the job done more quickly, he said. The final 14 panels will be sewn together, weighted, primed and prepped and will stay that way for a month. Then they will be hung from a ring that will pass through a sleeve at the top of each panel.

Olin has a lifelong interest in painting conservation, primarily because his parents are both art conservators. He describes his father, Charles Olin, founder of the Smithsonian’s conservation and analytical lab, as a hands-on conservator, while his mother, Jacque Smith Olin, has a more scientific bent. David Olin studied art history as an undergraduate, then began working with his father. By the mid-1980s, he was running the family business with Charles. At the end of the 1980s, the firm was taking on small projects for the federal government and public libraries. Over the next decade, it developed its capability for tackling larger projects, such as the $2.4 million restoration of the mural paintings in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. David had not yet finished that project when, in 2002, he received a Request for Proposal for the Gettysburg Cyclorama.

The problems with the massive Gettysburg painting were significant. Because it had been mounted flat across the top in 1962, the sections did not align when hung, but instead rippled out in undulations that had cracked in the course of 40 years. Olin calls it the “shower curtain effect.” He is using a fiberglass lining that is more inert and less susceptible to fluctuations. When the new sections are hung, they will flare out slightly in a cylindrical form at the bottom. An analytical man, Olin said he looks at the job in terms of the “means to fix it” adding, “We’re learning, we need to rely on what the canvas will do, allow it to recreate [itself].”

That combination of logistical thinking and artistic skill, allied with a good conservation team, will serve the cyclorama well and enable it to survive as a rich and fitting memorial to the courageous troops who fought and died on the Gettysburg battlefield.


Journalist and historian Margaret Morton is a native Briton and serves as deputy editor for community and municipal affairs at Leesburg Today.

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here