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Gettysburg gallery creates larger-than-life experience

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Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008

GETTYSBURG -- It is said Battle of Gettysburg veterans were so overwhelmed by the reality of French artist Paul Philippoteaux's colossal 377-foot Cyclorama painting at its 1884 unveiling in Chicago that some openly wept.

On Friday, when the Gettysburg Foundation and the National Park Service welcome visitors to the new Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama Gallery as part of the grand opening of the $103 million museum and visitors complex, those in attendance may not weep, but Civil War aficionados and tourists likely will be stunned by the work.

The Cyclorama, which depicts Pickett's Charge, is the United States' largest oil painting. At $15 million, it has undergone the most expensive refurbishment of an oil painting in the nation's history. As part of the five-year project, it was cleaned, repaired and restored to its original dimension; approximately 12 feet of sky was added, stretching its height to 42 feet.

While a team of about 20 conservators headed by David L. Olin of Great Falls, Va., were working on the painting, which depicts the decisive battle where Union armies beat back Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's assault on Northern territories, they uncovered more than 20 soldiers who disappeared under "gobs of paint that were splashed to cover up imperfections," according to Sue Boardman, a historian for the conservation project.

"It weighs about six tons, and I'm told four tons of it is oil paint," Gettysburg National Park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon says.

But the real shock is the painting's new home, which gives observers the illusion they are standing in the middle of the battlefield as the third day of the renowned battle is taking place. To give viewers that feeling, the painting was designed to include a three-dimensional diorama, a lifelike landscape stretching into the painting and a sky that disappears into an overhead canopy.

Visitors view the work atop a 30-foot platform.

"These features have not been seen for more than a century when it was originally displayed. This building actually fits the painting, whereas the old building was too small," Boardman says.

"It actually hung there like a shower curtain. Some parts were on the floor," she says.

"The roof had a lot of leaks. And the air conditioning intake actually was in the corner behind a portion of the painting, so for about 40 years, the painting was utilized as an air conditioning filter," Lawhon says.

Olin, who operates Olin Conservation, says that the Cyclorama never was intended to "stand on its own as a painting or as a snapshot of the battle's landmarks."

"It was to be an experience -- to be wholly absorbed and felt. It was to inspire awe and amazement. Now, for the first time in more than a century, viewers will once again enter a realm in which their senses will, if just for a moment, place them in the midst of the battle," Olin says.

A three-day grand opening weekend Friday through Sept. 28 not only will celebrate completion of the Cyclorama painting, but also bring together a variety of three-dimensional, interactive, hands-on experiences that immerse visitors throughout the 139,000-square-foot museum. The old center was about 78,000 square feet.

The new museum opened in April.

The fate of the Cyclorama's former building and museum, built in the 1960s, has spawned a federal lawsuit from preservationists who argued that it should be maintained as a memorial and historical landmark.

Despite the ongoing litigation, park officials are optimistic that demolition of both buildings will begin in the fall.

Also during this week's opening, one of five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address will be on display, on loan from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

"While most of our museum and visitors center offers a 21st century museum experience, the new Cyclorama painting presents a unique opportunity; the opportunity to view the 1863 battle in the same context that battle veterans did when they first saw the painting toward the end of the 19th century," says Robert C. Wilburn, president and CEO of the Gettysburg Foundation.

Tickets to the Cyclorama Gallery also will include the film "A New Birth of Freedom" narrated by Morgan Freeman and featuring the voices of Sam Waterston and Marcia Gay Harden. The film tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The new museum is about two-thirds of a mile from the old location, according to Dru Ann Neil, director of communications at the museum. The old site was in an important battle area; the new one is on land that saw no major battle action.

"This was a staging area," Neil says.

The center is a red and gray stone structure that resembles a barn. Neil says the museum is dedicated to preserving and presenting the story of the battle and its context in the Civil War.

On display are the National Park Service's priceless collections of objects, artifacts and archival materials.

In addition to the museum, with its 12 exhibit galleries and interactive and multimedia stations, the facility includes a resource room and bookstore. The Refreshment Saloon includes Civil War-era menu items such as hardtack -- hard biscuits made of flour, salt and water.

The artifacts include rifles, handguns and knives recovered from the battlefields, field camp equipment used by Lee, uniforms and musical instruments of Confederate and Union troops recovered after the battle, and a display of other artillery shell fragments.

Visitors can peek at original letters sent to loved ones by soldiers and personal diaries of Gettysburg residents.

Another change is that visitors can use touch-screen computers to learn how to decipher bugle calls, decode signal corps flag messages and locate battlefield monuments.

The Gettysburg National Military Park preserves the 6,000-acre Gettysburg Battlefield, site of the largest battle fought in North America. It was at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, adjacent to the battlefield, that Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address Nov. 19,1863.

On Feb. 12, 2009, the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, the National Park Service will open the David Wills House in Gettysburg. Lincoln put the finishing touches on the speech at the house.

The Gettysburg Foundation is a private, nonprofit educational organization working in partnership with the National Park Service to enhance preservation and understanding of the heritage and lasting significance of Gettysburg.

Additional Information:

Gettysburg Museum and Visitors Center

Hours: Open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in spring and fall, and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer

Admission: Free to the visitors center. Tickets for the Cyclorama and the film 'A New Birth of Freedom' are $12 for those 13 and older, $7 for ages 6-12 and free for children 5 and younger; tickets for the film only are $8, $4 for ages 6-12

Location: 1195 Baltimore Pike, Cumberland Township, Adams County

Details: 866-889-1243 or online



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