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A Virtual Polish for an Ancient Masterwork

Immersive mixed-reality experiences transport visitors through the story of Krishna
Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer
December 2, 2021

HoloLens Experience A mixed-reality headset projects holograms amidst actual people and objects in the surrounding space, allowing visitors to interact with physical and virtual environments simultaneously.

While developing the digital elements in Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain, I caught myself thinking about my visit to the King Tut exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978. We waited in long lines to enter; the excitement in the crowd was palpable. It was the first blockbuster museum exhibition and the hottest ticket in town. The result of a diplomatic gesture, the exhibition appealed to the adventure seeker and dreamer in all of us. I can’t help but see similar themes in Revealing Krishna. To me, this exhibition conjures the same excitement felt by the throngs of people who gathered for a glimpse of the boy-king.

When we began planning an exhibition centered on Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, it was clear the sculpture’s complex story would be difficult to tell through artwork alone. We wanted visitors to understand the research, history, and global partnerships behind the exhibition, and to witness the significant undertaking that brought the sculpture to the CMA and to its current state. For a seamless experience shifting between the physical and the digital, we created immersive concepts to take visitors along the canals to the sacred mountain, into Krishna’s original cave temple, and to stand before the eight monumental gods of Phnom Da.

Of the four immersive galleries, one is dedicated to a HoloLens 2 tour. Wearing a HoloLens headset, visitors physically follow the life story of our Krishna through five stations, each with abstract physical forms that ground the Augmented Reality landscape. Guided by the voice of the eight-year-old Krishna and following physical and digital wayfinding, visitors in groups of six leave every three minutes—up to 36 people at a time can be on the tour. The mixed reality offers an immersive experience without completely occluding one’s field of vision; users can still see and interact with others and maneuver through the gallery, blending the physical and the virtual.

To gather material for the exhibition, the film crew captured a detailed model of Phnom Da, entered the cave temples, and collected lidar scans, photogrammetry, and sound recordings. The tour culminates in a life-size holographic projection of the temple on Phnom Da where the Cleveland Krishna appears to have stood. Visitors will experience a high-resolution model of the temple at scale with ambient sound, and they will see an artist’s rendering of Krishna as he might have originally looked before years of wear and tear.

Revealing Krishna The CMA’s adventure with Krishna began in 1973. Now, digital innovation allows visitors to experience the sculpture restored and reinstated as it originally looked in 600. 1. The sculpture’s torso at the time of its 1973 acquisition by the CMA 2. After the 1978 restoration with incorrect limb fragments 3. In 2020 after an exchange of fragments between the Krishna sculptures from the National Museum of Cambodia and the CMA 4. An artist’s digital re-creation of how the CMA’s Krishna sculpture originally looked 1,500 years ago

This digital rendering of Krishna demonstrates the benefit of technology. Our conservators would never alter an object to this degree, but here we can re-create how the sculpture might have looked, with its dark, polished surface and original gold jewelry. We can experience what it might have been like to walk up to the sculpture, in its original context, centuries ago. Visitors will come away from the HoloLens 2 tour with a new appreciation of the storied conservation history of the Cleveland Krishna and new perspectives before removing the headset to view the actual sculptures in the next gallery.

The virtual reconstruction of Krishna is based on a decade of research by a cross-continental team. Midway up our virtual Phnom Da, created with photogrammetry captured via drone, the sculpture is situated precisely where curator Sonya Rhie Mace and other scholars believe it stood for more than 700 years. In another gallery, visitors will also interact with life-size detailed 3D models of all eight sculptures depicted using high-resolution lidar and photogrammetry.

Visitors are sent off with an immersive timeline exploring the impact of global history on and the diplomacy surrounding the sculptures of Phnom Da, narrated by director, actor, and humanitarian Angelina Jolie and author Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father). It tells the story of the gods of Phnom Da, showing the excavations and earliest discoveries in the 1800s, alongside present-day footage and animated maps. The film also covers the past decade of conservation innovations and partnership with Cambodia, and highlights the museum’s evolving role in stewardship within the global landscape.

Creating meaningful digital innovation in Revealing Krishnarequired a collaborative effort across the entire museum, and wouldn’t have been possible without the expertise of our many partners, including experience design studio Dome Collective and mixed-reality development partner the Interactive Commons at Case Western Reserve University. 

Despite restrictions on international travel these days, visitors can still enjoy the sights and sounds of Cambodia through this first-of-its-kind mixed-reality experience. Tickets are limited, so book your virtual trip today at cma.org, at the ticket desk, or by calling 216-421-7350.

Prototype of “Journey to Phnom Da” The immersive panoramic footage and soundscape captured by boat and by drone take visitors along the canals of southern Cambodia.

What will I experience at a 21st-century exhibition? 

This first-of-its-kind experience places you in the world of the Krishna sculpture, from the archaeological site where it was discovered to the conservation labs and to the mountain where the eight gods originally stood. Enter the exhibition through the waterways of Cambodia, surrounded by three walls of video taken with a three-camera rig by boat and drone footage of Phnom Da. Traveling the route pilgrims would have taken through the Mekong River delta, hear the local landscape, from monks chanting at a nearby temple to local fauna on the river. Exit into the Angkor Borei sculpture gallery featuring stone sculptures from the ancient city and its suburbs. Through windows into the next gallery, watch others on the optional mixed-reality HoloLens 2 tour. In the HoloLens experience, stand among the sculptural fragments in conservation labs at Cleveland and Phnom Penh, and travel to Phnom Da, seeing an aerial 3D model of the sacred two-peaked mountain. The HoloLens 2 tour culminates with a life-size model of the cave interior and exterior; step in and walk around Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan. After the cave melts away and the HoloLens headset has been removed, enter the main gallery with the context needed to fully encounter the Cleveland and Phnom Penh Krishnas, newly restored and on view together for the first time. Though only four of the original eight sculptures from Phnom Da could travel to Cleveland, all eight are on view digitally, in life-size interactive projections in the next gallery; the graceful, animated interactives were created using photogrammetry and lidar scanning. The final gallery features an immersive timeline, placing the discoveries of the eight gods of Phnom Da in the context of global events, highlighting the collaboration that made this exhibition possible and illuminating the evolving role of museums in stewardship of these masterworks. The digital work for all four elements continues to aid in research and scholarship, even helping the museum determine how to mount the Krishna sculpture for this exhibition.