Illuminating Ancient Art with 21st Century Technologies “Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain”

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How do curators and experiential designers reveal the hidden stories behind centuries old Cambodian artworks for modern-day audiences? A bold new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art brings together ancient artifacts with immersive digital technologies to illuminate the histories of these enigmatic sculptures including their journeys over the past 150 years.

It’s a rather complex story:

The National Museum of Cambodia (NMC) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) exchange fragments from two 1500-year-old figurative sculptures excavated in the mid-1800s from the same ancient site: Phnom Da on the Mekong River delta in Cambodia. Both artworks depict the Hindu deity Krishna lifting-up the sacred Mount Govardhan from a mythical watery world. The stone pieces were collected at different times, and while some stayed in Cambodia, others went to France and to the United States. A current collaboration between the Cambodian and American museums leads to the restoration of the two monumental sculptures held within their respective collections.

How then to convey all this to museum visitors in an understandable and engaging way? This was the challenge presented to Katie Lee and Lynn Kiang of the Brooklyn-based design studio Dome Collective (SEGD 2021 Sylvia Harris Global Design Award Winners). The firm was tasked with telling the stories of these two sacred sculptures—and nine related ones—including how and why the artworks were first created, when and where they were found during modern times, and how the fragments were subsequently transported around the world—and why Krishna is lifting that big mountain!

Katie and Lynn worked with Sonya Rhie Mace, curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the CMA and Jane Alexander, the museum’s chief digital information officer along with a large team of digital technology professionals to create the exhibition Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Their overarching goal: bring the story of the two Krishnas to life by integrating experiential design elements and digital technologies with displays of the original artworks.

“We were engaged pretty early on with Sonya and Jane,” says Lynn. “They both knew it was going to be hard for an audience to dive into the context of Cambodia and Asian art, so they realized digital could really serve the content well and engage audiences in a really complex and scholarly story.”

“It’s rare for digital and experience designers to come in before the curatorial vision has been set,” adds Katie. “But we did early discovery charrettes with the museum team to identify the overall tutorial goals, so that was the early start. Typically any kind of digital media is brought in towards the very end [of the exhibition design process] whereas here we’re kind of fronting it.” 

The curatorial vision began with the learning goals set by Sonya with the Cleveland Museum’s education department. These included presenting the environmental, cultural, historical and archeological contexts of the Phnom Da site and the Krishna figures.

“We knew this exhibition would be a breakthrough in expanding the definition of a scholarly art exhibition,” says Jane. “Throughout the process of developing this show, we needed to think outside of an institutional comfort zone.”

The result: an exhibition which alternates galleries featuring the original sculptures with those devoted to digital experiences, encouraging visitors to learn about the artworks and their contexts in fun and engaging ways.

The opening gallery sets the environmental context and transports visitors to the waterways of the Mekong River delta and Phnom Da, the sacred mountain where the Cleveland Krishna was found. Three 22-foot-long projections form an immersive corridor with views of the canals leading to Phnom Da in a cinematic and audio landscape. Filmed in Cambodia with a three-camera rig and drone, the projected footage allows visitors to see varied views of the surrounding landscape from the vantage point of the canals as they travel virtually toward the two-peaked mountain.

The second gallery showcases some of the original artwork and features five sculptures from the ancient Cambodian metropolis of Angkor Borei and nearby sacred sites. The works depict both Hindu and Buddhist images made by Cambodian sculptors around the year AD 500.

The third gallery introduces visitors to the world of Phnom Da—the original home of the Cleveland Krishna—and the sculpture’s global story as told through a mixed-reality Microsoft HoloLens 2 tour. The virtual tour unfolds through individual headsets which place each visitor in Cambodia and then follows the journey of Krishna from Cambodia to Europe and Cleveland, and back again. The experience culminates in a life-size 3D projection of the CMA Krishna completely restored and reinstated in the cave temple it originally occupied on Phnom Da. 

In the fourth gallery, the original Cleveland Krishna and the Cambodia Krishna sculptures are presented to museum visitors along with Krishna’s brother Balarama, and the four-armed dual god Harihara, who is half Vishnu and half Shiva.

In the fifth gallery, the eight gods of Phnom Da are reunited, digitally, for the first time in centuries through interactive, motion-activated projections, providing detailed views of each one’s unique iconography. This experience allows visitors intimate, rarely seen views of these ancient sculptures through animations of high-resolution 3D models, projected at life size.

And then finally, the exhibition culminates with a film installation narrated by director, actor and humanitarian Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung (best-selling author of First They Killed My Father). Formatted as a panoramic horizon, eight screens are aligned to create an L-shaped configuration in the corner of the exhibition’s final gallery that tell the stories of the origins, discovery and conservation history of the eight gods of Phnom Da.

“I think the new direction that our museum is looking to take in the 21st century is to not only show beautiful works of art on pedestals, but also to tell their stories of where they came from and what they meant to people who made them,” says Sonya, “and allow visitors to access that information by walking through the story, instead of just reading about it or listening to it, and to use the digital technology to help with that.”

Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through January 30, 2022.  The exhibition will next open at the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery on April 30, 2022.

Photos courtesy of Dome Collective and Cleveland Museum of Art