Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia's Sacred Mountain
Meaningful innovation initiates relationships with artwork in "Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia's Sacred Mountain," a first-of-its-kind exhibition on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from November 14, 2021, through January 30, 2022. The exhibition centered around the newly restored sculpture "Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan," using digital elements alongside masterworks of Cambodian sculpture to make a complex story accessible to a wide audience. The exhibition featured 4 digital galleries, including immersive projections, graceful interactive animations, and a mixed-reality tour transporting visitors across 15 centuries and 3 continents, interspersed with two sculptural galleries. The exhibition was a culmination of new scholarly discoveries, decades of conservation efforts, and international partnerships, presenting "Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan" alongside related works in an integration of art, technology, and experiential design.
In this exhibition for the museum of the future, transformative digital makes complex topics relatable, not just for scholars but for anyone. "Revealing Krishna" tells a story of research, provenance, diplomacy and the role of museums. Through the immersive digital galleries, visitors explore the complex conservation of Cambodian masterworks, bringing context to a multifaceted story and making these fragmented sculptures on pedestals understandable to a wide audience. Through mixed reality, 3-D modeling, gesture-based interactives and large-scale projections alongside the actual Cambodian sculptures on-view, visitors gain a deeper understanding of the artworks and are encouraged to look closer and dive deeper.
The exhibition "Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia's Sacred Mountain" tells the life story of the CMA's monumental sculpture "Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan," spanning 1,500 years and three continents, transporting visitors to the floodplains of Southern Cambodia and exploring complex concepts including provenance, conservation, Hindu iconography, global history, and the role of museums in continued stewardship of global art objects. The exhibition unveiled the newly restored Krishna alongside related sculptures in an integration of art, technology, and experiential design.
The remarkable story of the sculpture's international history needed to be presented in a concise and authentic way, that would attract, engage, inform, and entertain scholarly and non-scholarly audiences. Complex concepts, from multiple attempted reconstructions to the importance of the sculpture's original site at Phnom Da, to the international collaborations of museums and conservators would have been difficult to digest via traditional wall labels. Additionally, several of the 8 original sculptures from Phnom Da were too large and fragile to be transported to Cleveland for the show, but the museum still wanted to represent all 8 together in a monumental fashion. In addition to communicating these complex concepts, the museum also wanted to give a sense of place and create a transportive experience for visitors, making a fascinating story accessible to all, and sparking wonder and engagement.
The digital experiences in "Revealing Krishna" are the result of an exceptional collaborative effort, led by an in-house team, working with talented external partners. Though the CMA has a long history of using digital tool sets to spark relationships with art, this is the first time the museum has created immersive experiences in a special exhibition. Each digital experience addresses a specific learning goal, implemented with transformative immersive concepts. Here, digital is a critical tool that can communicate information in a meaningful way and presents the context of artwork, so it is easy to grasp, dynamic rather than static, giving visitors the agency to explore and connect to complex topics themselves.
The four digital galleries in Revealing Krishna include:
Immersive Corridor: Journey to Phnom Da
The entrance to the show is a 22-foot-long corridor that transports visitors to the Cambodian floodplains towards the temple mountain. Three-camera-rig boat footage, aerial drone footage, and field recordings create an immersive cinematic and audio landscape. This journey along the Mekong River delta allows visitors to experience how 7th century pilgrims traveled to Phnom Da as they prepare to meet the sculptures from this sacred two-peaked mountain.
HoloLens Experience: The Story of the Cleveland Krishna
A mixed-reality tour allows visitors to travel through the story of the sculpture's provenance, global travels, and conservation in 3D space. The tour ran continuously with groups of 6 departing every 2 mins, with 36 simultaneous participants at once. Over 96% of visitors who entered the exhibition chose to take the HoloLens tour. Visitors traversed photo-realistic 3D landscapes captured on-site in Cambodia, and viewed models of sculptural fragments, understanding the various reconstruction attempts as they move through 6 physical stations in the custom-built gallery. The voice of the 8-year-old deity Krishna guides visitors from station to station, narrating his 150-year journey from Cambodia to Cleveland. The tour culminates at a model of the sculpture's original cave temple where visitors are invited to step in to view a recreation of the sculpture in its original state. Captured through photogrammetry, LiDAR scan, and drone footage from the original site itself, the augmented environment allows visitors to walk around Krishna at real scale. Through participating in the experience, visitors can understand all the factors across time and place that impacted the way Krishna looks today before traveling to the next gallery to see the sculpture itself, on display for the first time since its recent reconstruction.
8 Gesture Based 3-D Interactives: Gods of Phnom Da
The eight deity sculptures from the original temple site are digitally reunited at life-size in an interactive pantheon. Captured through photogrammetry and LiDAR scan, each monumental sculpture is projected onto a floor-to-ceiling scrim as a full-scale, high-resolution 3D model. Visitors are invited to look closer by stepping in front of each sculpture, activating the touchless sensor above. Visitors view animated, close-up details about the sculpture's symbolism and form, offering privileged views of all eight sculptures.
Immersive Timeline: Global Journeys
The exhibition concludes with a panoramic horizon of eight screens featuring archival photos, present-day video, and animated maps. Narrated by director, actor, and humanitarian Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung (best-selling author of "First They Killed My Father"), the 5-minute film traces the journey of the eight Phnom Da sculptures across the globe, conservation discoveries, and diplomatic exchanges between multiple museums and countries. The last decade of conservation innovation, exchange, and partnership with Cambodia concludes this film and highlights the museum's evolving role in stewardship within the global landscape.
"Revealing Krishna" was the museum's first special exhibition to use state-of-the-art immersive digital media throughout the visitor experience. Implemented and opened during the pandemic, the three-month exhibition opened and closed to sold-out shows. The media design process was a model for collaboration across museum departments, design and technology partners, and international institutions. The exhibition was a proof-of-principle for immersive digital throughout museum exhibitions, with digital elements working alongside masterworks of art to provide deeper understanding of complex concepts.