The Cleveland Krishna

A groundbreaking 
exhibit

Revealing Krishna

Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain

Cleveland Museum of Art — 11.14.21 - 1.30.22

In partnership with Cleveland Museum of Art and Microsoft, the Interactive Commons developed a mixed reality experience as part of their exhibit, “Revealing Krishna — Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain.” This exhibit is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, where a mixed reality experience takes center stage. 

The development process was a years-long endeavor between the creative teams at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), The National Museum at Phnom Penh, and the Interactive Commons (IC) at CWRU. “It’s the kind of story that requires something… really creative,” said CMA curator Sonya Rhie Mace, one that, “Takes place over so many different continents and countries and time periods and histories that are unfamiliar to many people.”

Read our exclusive interview with Sonya Rhie Mace, CMA’s George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, on the experience of bringing mixed reality storytelling to such an important piece within the collection.

The production phase was epic, but such a large effort was needed to tell such a large story; that of the gigantic Krishna sculpture itself. There were site visits to Cambodia, 3D scans of fragmented sculptures, intensive restoration processes, and even a documentary screenwriter was brought on board to help carve out the story. As the exhibit took shape, the artistic and development teams at the IC forged the holographic visuals: everything from recreating a 100-year-old garden in Brussels to a mythical rainstorm in an ancient Indian village with a mountain serving as an umbrella. 

When the exhibit opened in November of 2021, it did so to glowing critical reviews and became an immediate must-see. Visitors stepped into the space and were surrounded by a triptych of floor-to-ceiling screens projecting the sights and sounds captured from the canal traveling towards Phnom Da, the Cambodian mountain dotted with ancient temples where the sculpture of Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan was originally installed. This watery portal pulls visitors in and initiates them onto their own journey in the same manner by which pilgrims traveled to the cave temples more than 1,500 years ago.

Revealing Krishna
Cleveland Museum of Art, 2021-22

Once visitors land at the foot of the mountain, they are each given a HoloLens headset and begin the custom mixed reality experience, “The Story of the Cleveland Krishna”. Over twelve minutes, visitors are led through the winding tale of the sculpture’s history by the boy God Krishna himself (narrated by Cambodian voice actor, Soan “Emi” Pheary) as it is smashed, sold, abandoned, and finally put back together on the other side of the world. In the final scene, Krishna brings visitors back to the mountain with a vision of the sculpture reinstated in the temple — complete once more, and glowing from the candles that splash light over all the interior stone walls. Water magically pours down his facade in a devotional gesture. Then, quietly, the cave and the sculpture fade away, and there is only the empty room.

After exiting the cave and returning headsets to the kiosk, visitors find themselves immediately in front of the real-world Krishna sculpture, which is side-by-side with seven of the other monumental Phnom Da sculptures on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia and the Musée Guimet in Paris. Mirroring the analog sculpture gallery is a digital one, where screens portraying larger than lifesize high-def images of each sculpture rotate and describe intricate details, such as cat tail on Harihara’s thigh and the pile of intricate braids on his head. Finally, the exhibit concludes with a video narrated by activists, creatives, and friends Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung, who describe the process of diplomacy and collaboration that connected Cleveland and Phnom Penh in order to bring the story of this sculpture to life.

Revealing Krishna
Cleveland Museum of Art, 2021-22

Beyond the storytelling and creative to-do lists was a practical requirement: the museum needed a way to manage all of their new HoloLens headsets and the continuous playing of the application. The experience was set to a timed track — six stations, each around two minutes long — and six staggered groups of visitors would be cycling through simultaneously. After each group completes the entire sequence, headsets would need to be collected, cleaned, and prepped for the next group. This efficiency would allow for a maximum of 1,200 visitors per day, but would require a custom “lobby” management app to pull off the precision and orchestration.

“It was pretty much created out of necessity,” Senior IC developer Henry Eastman recounted, “But it’s certainly enlightening that having external applications to control an otherwise augmented reality experience works so well. We can have an experience in which people in (the exhibit) would never have to worry about any control or messing it up by hitting a button on accident.” The development team went through a variety of iterations, making sure to cover everything from closed captioning options to battery life, and created a simple and approachable interface for museum staff to confidently manage the experience for guests.

Revealing Krishna
Cleveland Museum of Art, 2021-22

This exhibit has a limited run (closing January 31st, 2022), but there is already momentum around bringing it to other audiences across the globe. It is our great hope that mixed reality will flourish as a way to bring to life some of the more complicated and epic stories tucked inside the “100-word labels” that Mace laments as sometimes falling “miserably short” of their goal of contextualizing the art for the viewer.

She sees MR technology as a way to, “Holographically bring context to an object in the gallery…. My dream is to be able to let people, in an instant, get it. Get why this is a great work. That's why it's so exciting that we're embarking on these collaborations.”

For more information on the exhibit, please visit Cleveland Museum of Art online.