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How 3-D technology, goodwill gestures helped restore 'Cleveland Krishna' to divine glory


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A 1,500-year-old statue of the Hindu god Krishna just got a 21st century makeover at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

From PBS station ideastream Public Media, David C. Barnett takes us behind the scenes to see how the museum has reassembled an ancient puzzle.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

David C. Barnett: The Cleveland Museum of Art has tried for decades to do right by this guy. He first arrived at the museum in the 1970s, broken into pieces.

Curators tried to put him back together, but didn't quite get it right. And then, about four years ago, a new generation of museum staffers decided to try again.

It's been a long journey. The story actually starts hundreds of years ago in Southern Cambodia near the entrance of a sacred site at the twin-peaked mountain of Phnom Da. It was there where sculptors carved the image of the Hindu god Krishna. This popular deity was depicted holding a mountain over his head like an umbrella to protect his worshipers from a torrential rainstorm.

Sonya Rhie Mace, Curator, Cleveland Museum of Art: The ritual to make this sculpture sacred when it was installed, part of the installation included putting tokens of gold under the tenet, inside the pedestal. And so poor thieves looking for gold would topple the sculptures to get the gold.

David C. Barnett: Around 1912, a group of French archaeologists first discovered the broken pieces. Those pieces were then bought, sold, and traded a number of times over the next six decades.

For instance, a rich Belgian banker liked the head and torso, but wasn't all that interested in the rest of it.

Sonya Rhie Mace: So, they buried the pieces. Some of them were used as edgings for the garden.

David C. Barnett: A curatorial crew from the Cleveland Museum of Art dug the pieces out of the garden in 1975, and they attempted to reassemble the ancient statue.

Sonya Rhie Mace: It is not easy. These pieces, there's no joints remaining between them. The angles are difficult.

David C. Barnett: And a key piece was missing, the left hand, which holds the mountain over Krishna's head. It turns out that that fragment had been mistakenly attached to a different statue still in Cambodia.

The Museum of Art conservationists used 3-D imaging from Case Western Reserve University to uncover this, and discover any other potentially misplaced parts. 3-D printing technology was used to create a plastic duplicate of the sculpture. That made it easier for staff to see how the pieces went together.

Beth Edelstein, Objects Conservator, Cleveland Museum of Art: If you look at his raised hand, the distance between his elbow and his wrist is rather short. And that the one of the reasons they didn't put the hand piece on in the 1970s.

We have sort of more mounting evidence that it does belong, including the petrographic studies, looking at the type of stone and how they match each other. And there's a really good join there, so we are convinced that it does belong to this sculpture.

Sonya Rhie Mace: It's that new digital technology that really turned the corner with making the decision that it does belong to the Cleveland Krishna.

David C. Barnett: Now, getting Krishna's hand from Cambodia happened thanks to another mythic Hindu figure, Hanuman, the monkey god.

The museum acquired this sculpture in 1982, and visitors loved to pose with it. But in 2015, Sonya Rhie Mace through research that Hanuman, purchased in good faith, had likely been looted from his home country back in the 1970s.

Cleveland Museum of Art director William Griswold contacted the Cambodian secretary of state and made arrangements to return the Hanuman sculpture.

William Griswold, Director, Cleveland Museum of Art: The deputy prime minister and I signed an agreement transferring possession of the Hanuman to the kingdom of Cambodia.

Dignitaries from all over the world laid garlands of flowers on the sculpture of Hanuman, which we had shipped back to Cambodia just a few days earlier.

David C. Barnett: And that goodwill gesture from the museum led to the reunification of Krishna and his hand.

For the past four years, the museum's conservation staff has worked to restore the aging sculpture to its divine glory.

Beth Edelstein: One of the main challenges is that, when the sculpture was assembled in the 1970s, it was assembled with no intention of it ever coming apart again.

But over the years since then, the conservation field has moved a little farther in the direction of thinking more long-term and making sure that everything that we do can be undone by someone else, because we have started to realize that nothing is permanent.

David C. Barnett: It's been a long journey, covering thousands of miles and hundreds of years.

Sonya Rhie Mace: I love the hand. It's so subtle. Like, that index finger just bends ever so slightly. It never ceases to amaze me.

David C. Barnett: And in a time of national and international disagreements and tensions, it's an example of collaboration in the name of art and culture.

For the "PBS NewsHour", I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you, ideastream.

And what a wonderful example, as you just heard, of cooperation.

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