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Back to the Past: Atlanta History Center Charts a New Course

Fresh off the completion of its largest capital campaign ever, raising more than $50 million, the Atlanta History Center is reshaping the way people connect with the region’s past. From bold twists on programming to innovative off-campus activities, the Atlanta History Center’s management and staff move at a brisk pace. Now, as the organization prepares to take ownership of one of the city’s most significant Civil War related artifacts, leadership sees people buying into the Atlanta History Center’s vision. 

Since its creation in 1926, the Atlanta History Center has served as a caretaker and a storyteller, opening windows into Atlanta’s past for visitors seeking to learn more about their city.

Generations of families, students, and out-of-towners have walked the 33-acre campus, which includes the Swan House, Smith Family Farm, Wood Family Cabin, 22 acres of historic gardens, and the Atlanta History Museum, featuring the largest collection of Civil War artifacts in the country. Over the past few decades, the Center has used the knowledge produced by its research arm, the Kenan Research Center, to interpret city history, creating a bridge between Atlanta’s past and present.

Today, building upon its facility and intellectual capital, and bolstered by new investment, the Atlanta History Center (GCN member since 2001) is making bold changes in its visitor experience and outreach. According to President and CEO Sheffield Hale, the Center’s 140 full- and part-time staff, along with more than 200 active volunteers, are ready to stand and deliver on an incredible run of expansion.

A contemporary model for sharing history

When he took the helm at the Atlanta History Center in 2012, Hale and his team spent time looking objectively at the visitor experience and public visibility. Hale and VP of Guest Experience Hillary Hardwick wanted to move beyond what they refer to as the “blockbuster exhibition model” that many museums use to create seasonal spikes in attendance. Why settle for a few big exhibits, they thought, when the Center could create activity year-round?

At the same time, the leadership team looked holistically at the way people engaged with the facility, seeking innovative approaches to make the learning experience more interactive. What if visitors could do more than read about an event or an artifact? What if they could participate?

Hale and his leadership team made the message to staff loud and clear: they had full support from the top to go out and innovate.

“The organization is changing very rapidly, both in the way we are perceived externally and the way we think of ourselves,” Hale said. “The question was whether people could step up to that pace and that vision. And they did. It has not been easy, but everybody really put their shoulder to the wheel, and it shows throughout the whole institution.”

These changes, started by the Center’s top leadership for the benefit of patrons, in turn created benefits for staff: opportunities for advancement among managers working to innovate. Hardwick, entering her fourteenth year on staff at the center, noted a new sense of excitement surrounding this entrepreneurial approach to change: “We were ready for this,” she said. “This is what we have been waiting for.”

Reimagining how we “Meet the Past”

The Center’s innovative new principles show up everywhere in programming and outreach, including the new “Meet the Past” museum theatre programming, featuring interpreters , many of whom are actors dressed in period costumes, offering insight into Atlanta history from the perspective of a Confederate soldier, an enslaved person, a farmer, or even legendary golfer Bobby Jones.

You’ll also see the change in class field trips to the Center, where students studying the Civil War are assigned a historical persona as part of an educational game. Each student gets to find out whether their alter ego fights for the Union or the Confederacy, and gets to work through the tough decisions faced by Civil War-era Atlantans of all kinds. The Center even brought a playwright on staff to create new theatre pieces designed to bring the past to life for students, and general visitors. 

“We’re moving beyond the ‘velvet ropes’ kind of tour,” said Hale of the new learning model. “People are making a very personal connection. They’re learning the history of the time period. It doesn’t have to be a date on a timeline.”

To get young professionals involved, the staff hosts a series of cocktail parties, called “Party with the Past: Free History Cold Beer” at historic Atlanta venues like the Fox Theater, Auburn Avenue, and Variety Playhouse. Promoted entirely through social media, the effort brought more than 425 people to the Mausoleum at West View Cemetery this Halloween Eve for drinks and a short presentation on the quirky history of the landmark. More recently, an event at the Tabernacle garnered 1,000 RSVPs.

It’s a point of pride for Hale, as a leader, that all this innovation in programming and delivery didn’t require the Center to take anything off its plate. Hale credits an optimal balance of maintenance and growth: “It took a lot of time to figure out how to do it well,” Hale said. “It’s stretching our staff, but this is just what we wanted to happen. They’re stepping up, we’ve increased everything we’ve done, and we’ve raised money because people are buying into our vision.”

Many of the changes occurring at the Center, both programmatically and physically, were propelled by a $21.1 million capital campaign, the largest in the organization’s history, and a simultaneous $32 million Cyclorama Campaign. Hale had a unique both-sides-of-the-table perspective, having started the capital campaign as a board member in 2010 and completed it in his second year as the president and CEO.

“It was easy for me to translate to the board because I was one of them,” Hale said. “The trust factor was there throughout.”

Taking in a city heirloom

The infusion of funds has helped prepare the Center to acquire a historical treasure first brought to the city in 1893: the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta.

The Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum, a fixture in Atlanta’s Grant Park, has displayed the painting for most of its time in the city. Though operated by the City of Atlanta, the Cyclorama has had a relationship with the independent Atlanta History Center for many years. According to Hale, traveling cyclorama attractions were a popular form of entertainment before motion pictures. The Battle of Atlanta came to town in 1893, and never left.  In recent years, however, gate receipts dwindled, the painting’s need for restoration grew, and the City created a task force to identify other options for delivering the Atlanta Cyclorama experience.

Hale served on that task force, which ultimately had to answer one overarching question: Should the Atlanta Cyclorama be preserved as a standalone attraction, or take on a new identity as an artifact inside another venue?

“It was a large group representing many different backgrounds and areas of expertise,” Hale said. “Our conclusion was that it was no longer a [standalone] attraction. When motion pictures came in, cycloramas moved out of the attraction category and into the artifact category.”

The task force ultimately suggested the 20,000 square-foot oil canvas be managed as an artifact by the Atlanta History Center, joining more than 1,500 other Civil War artifacts managed by the Center, and which offer a more complete picture of the era.

But how to move a 129-year-old oil painting weighing four-and-a half tons? According to the Center’s research, the best way is to roll it up. But it also requires a number of complex preservation tasks, which Hale’s team is undertaking with direction from cyclorama restoration experts in Europe. As of now, the big move is still in the very early stages of planning and logistics, but Hale sees compelling opportunities to build programming around the cyclorama in its new home. “Our programming will give it new life,” Hale said. “It’s what we do.”

Community through history

With a bold vision and an invigorated, well-supported staff to act on it, the Atlanta History Center continues to grow into a community resource. Their new approach to educating youth, engaging professionals, and making artifacts of the city’s past relevant for contemporary residents, while generating the capital to maintain it all, is helping ensure that a forward-looking city doesn’t forget its storied past.

“What we’re talking about now is how important history is in connecting people to each other and the community,” Hale said. “That’s what we see as our value. To change the perception that this is somebody else’s history, that it’s not my history. It’s all of our history.”

 

Brian Carr is communications consultant for GCN.

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