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'Revealing Krishna' exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art links Northeast Ohio with Cambodia

The exhibit will be on display through the end of January.

CLEVELAND — Across hundreds of years and thousands of miles, the Cleveland Museum of Art's latest exhibit takes you to Cambodia, the sacred mountain home to sculptures of eight Hindu gods including Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. 

The sculpture at the center of "Revealing Krishna" has been part of the CMA's collection since the 1970s, but a relatively new collaboration and partnership made the must-see show possible, and the Cleveland Krishna is on display like never before.

"Honestly, the most frequent comment that I hear from visitors is how moving and emotional the experience is here,"  Sonya Rhie Mace, George P Pickford curator for Indian and Southeast Asian art at the museum, told us. "The sculpture itself takes on a kind of a presence with its own history and own story."

The masterwork that first came to town in 1973 as a fragment has now come to life at CMA. Mace walked us through her exhibit, which takes us virtually to Phnom Da -- the sacred mountain in Cambodia where our Krishna first stood.

"The new turn in museums now, and even in the field of art history overall is more about context," she said. "So what did he mean for the people who made this sculpture? What was the context? How did it look when in its original setting, and how did people – when it was first made interact with this sculpture – how did they understand him?

"This is what I, as a curator, now I'm trying to bring forward, and it takes this whole sweeping set of galleries to convey that story."

With cutting-edge technology, we meet Krishna, as an 8-year-old, telling his own story. The mixed reality Microsoft HoloLens tour is voiced by a Cambodian young girl – taking us, first-person, through the sculpture's journey to Cleveland.

Then, the highlight of the newly restored sculptures: the Cleveland Krishna and the second, on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia. New collaborative research across continents showed the two needed to swap leg fragments.

"I think, actually, this is the first time these two sculptures have been seen together side-by-side because even when they were installed on the mountain, they were in individual temples," Mace explained.

The restoration took seven years and the work of all sorts of Cleveland partners.

"We're all going to be broken in some way," Mace said, "and then to have people try to connect you and reassemble you and reunite you with your divine family."

This exhibit brings together – albeit digitally – all eight gods of Phnom Da. Many of the physical sculptures on display have never been loaned before, like Hari Hara from his Paris home and Krishna's brother Balarama from Cambodia. The familiar voice of Angelina Jolie narrates the gods' timeline.

CMA Director Bill Griswold says this exhibit is the future.

"Every aspect of this exhibition has involved collaboration with Case Western Reserve University, with ThinkBox, with respect to the conservation of the statue collaboration," he said. "Also with our colleagues in Cambodia, who simultaneously, of course, were contemplating the restoration of the Phnom Pen Krishna."

That special partnership made this all possible. The bond grew in 2015 after CMA returned the sculpture of another Hindu god, Hanuman, to its rightful owners when details emerged showing it likely had been illegally removed from Cambodia during a period of civil war. 

"We and other museums, but the Cleveland Museum of Art in particular, are completely committed to transparency with respect to the origin of the works of art in our collection," Griswold told us. "Should any evidence emerge that we might not have good title to a work of art, then of course we will do the right thing, as we did in 2015 with the transfer to Cambodia of our statue of Hanuman."

It's a show of respect, but Griswold says it's also the future of museums, where art is not about ownership. 

"I think that the future is more about access and a more about exchange, and that this exhibition and this relationship can serve as a real model for the future."