The Cleveland Krishna

A groundbreaking 

The Story of the Cleveland Krishna

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, the Interactive Commons developed a mixed reality experience as part of the exhibit, “Revealing Krishna — Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain.” This exhibit is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, where mixed reality 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 IC. “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.” The exhibit hosted more than 22,000 visitors over three months, reaching 1,000 per day at its peak.

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 a large effort was needed to tell such a large story — that of the gigantic sculpture itself. There were site visits to Cambodia, 3-D scans, 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 conjuring a mythical rainstorm in an ancient Indian village with a mountain serving as an umbrella.

The exhibit opened in November 2021 to glowing critical reviews and became an immediate must-see. At the entrance to the exhibit, visitors are surrounded by a triptych of floor-to-ceiling video screens showing the canal path that leads towards Phnom Da, the Cambodian mountain 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

The Cleveland Krishna story was separated into six stations, which audience members were guided through by the voice of Krishna. Click Station Guide to see the path they took.

On the other side of the canal, visitors are given a HoloLens headset and begin the custom mixed reality experience, “The Story of the Cleveland Krishna”. Over twelve minutes, they are led through the winding tale 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. At the end, visitors arrive back at the mountain in front of the cave's entrance, and are beckoned inside to see a reconstructed view of the sculpture where it once stood. As the visuals slowly fade, visitors exit the now empty room and return their headsets.

In the next room visitors find themselves immediately in front of the real sculpture, which is flanked by seven other sculptures from Phnom Da temples (on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia and the Musée Guimet in Paris.) A digital sculpture gallery comes next, where screens showing high-definition captures of each sculpture rotate and call out intricate details such as the cat tail on Harihara’s thigh and the pile of intricate braids on his head. The exhibit concludes with a video narrated by Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung, who describe the diplomacy and collaboration that brought the story of this sculpture back to life.

Beyond the content for the exhibit itself, the museum also needed a way to manage all of the 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 staggered groups of visitors would be cycling through simultaneously. After each group completed the experience, headsets needed to be collected, cleaned, and prepped for the next group. This efficiency would allow for a maximum of 1,200 visitors per day, but required a custom app to manage it.

“It was pretty much created out of necessity,” Senior Visualization Tech Developer Henry Eastman recounted, “But it’s certainly enlightening that having an external application to control an augmented reality experience works so well. No one has to worry about any controls or messing it up by hitting a button on accident.” The management app covers everything from closed captioning options to battery life, all in 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 closed on January 31st, 2022 at CMA, but there is already momentum around bringing it to other audiences across the globe. Mixed reality is a way to bring to life some of the more complicated and epic stories tucked inside the “100-word labels” that Mace laments can fall “miserably short” of their goal of contextualizing the art for the viewer.

But this technology can, "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.