Conserving Krishna

When people ask about my work as an art conservator, their first question tends to be whether I really get to touch the art. I tell them that I do, and that it’s always a thrill. They also ask how long conservation treatments take, especially for large and complicated paintings and sculptures. The answer to this question is generally “it depends.” But some projects do live with us for quite a while, and it is always exciting to finally share them with museum audiences.

In November, the Cleveland Museum of Art reveals the results of more than seven years of research and conservation work on the 7th-century Cambodian monumental stone figure Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan. This sculpture has been our constant companion in the objects conservation lab since November 2017, when it was removed from the Indian and Southeast Asian art galleries. When it returns to view in a new exhibition this fall, it will have been in the lab almost four years to the day. Even more synchronously, the sculpture was previously reconstructed at the CMA in 1978, exactly 40 years before our team returned to it in earnest in 2018. These time spans are tiny in relation to a sculpture carved about 1,500 years ago, but they feel significant to us.

The conservation project has been widely collaborative, drawing an ever-expanding circle to encompass our museum co-workers across many departments, partners at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic, and colleagues in Cleveland and around the US, including structural engineers, an industrial X-ray facility, a steel fabricator, and many helpful conservation associates. Colleagues at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh were also indispensable, and we are grateful for their involvement and expertise.

After countless hours of patient excavation of previous restoration materials, including epoxy putty, brass, and steel, this storied sculpture’s original stone fragments emerged for the first time since 1978. This prompted a revised interpretation of the puzzle the fragments presented, aided by 3D scans and digital models, medical computerized tomography (CT) scans, and geological analysis to resolve the proper attribution of each section.

From there, the project turned to focus on engineering, devising methods to properly align and suspend the figure’s body and upper section, which collectively weigh 830 pounds. CWRU’s Engineering Department helped us test new epoxy and steel combinations that would support the weight but leave our work as reversible as possible, should future conservators see the need to undo it.

Our desire to leave the four stone pieces separate while giving the impression of a fully reconstructed sculpture posed challenges to mount makers and engineers that were met with ingenious solutions (and relatively few moments of stress!). It is remarkable to see the many parts of such a complicated and delicate project come together so successfully.

Today, Krishna stands with his mountain lifted overhead, as complete as he can be at this moment in his long life. We know that future scholarship will likely reveal even more about this fascinating and important sculpture and the site from which it came. These seven years may be a blink of an eye to Krishna himself, but the changes accomplished in this timeframe have made quite a difference. For more on this project, visit medium.com/cma-thinker.