Judy Woodruff: A 1500 year old statue of the Hindu god Krishna has just been transformed into the 21st century at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
David S. Barnett, host of PBS ideastream Public Media, takes us backstage to see how the museum is reassembling an ancient puzzle.
This is part of our Canvas art and culture series.
David S. Barnett: The Cleveland Museum of Art has been trying to do the right thing with this guy for decades. It first came to the museum in the 1970s, broken into pieces.
The curators tried to collect it back, but they did not quite succeed. And then, about four years ago, a new generation of museum workers decided to try again.
It was a long journey. The story actually begins hundreds of years ago in Southern Cambodia at the entrance to a sacred place on a mountain with two peaks, Phnom Da. It was there that the sculptors carved the image of the Hindu god Krishna. This popular deity was depicted with a mountain above his head, like an umbrella, to protect his worshipers from heavy rain.
Sonia Ree Mays, curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art: The ritual to make this sculpture sacred when it was erected, part of the installation involved placing gold tokens under a shade inside the pedestal. And so the poor thieves looking for gold knocked over the sculptures to get the gold.
David S. Barnett: Around 1912, a group of French archaeologists first discovered the fragments. These items were then bought, sold and traded several times over the next six decades.
For example, one wealthy Belgian banker liked the head and torso, but had little interest in everything else.
Sonya Ree Mays: So they buried the pieces. Some of them were used as garden borders.
David S. Barnett: In 1975, a group of curators at the Cleveland Museum of Art dug up fragments from the garden and attempted to reassemble the ancient statue.
Sonya Ree Mays: It’s not easy. These pieces, there are no joints left between them. Corners are tricky.
David S. Barnett: And the key element was missing, the left hand that holds the mountain above Krishna’s head. It turns out that this fragment was erroneously attached to another statue still in Cambodia.
Museum of Art restorers used 3D images from Case Western Reserve University to uncover this and uncover any other potentially misplaced pieces. 3D printing technology was used to create a plastic copy of the sculpture. This made it easier for employees to see how all the pieces fit together.
Beth Edelstein, Item Restorer, Cleveland Museum of Art: If you look at his raised arm, the distance between his elbow and wrist is quite short. And this is one of the reasons why handcuffs were not worn in the 1970s.
We have a growing body of evidence that it does indeed belong, including petrographic studies examining the type of stone and how they fit together. And there is a really good connection, so we are convinced that it really belongs to this sculpture.
Sonya Ree Mays: This is the new digital technology that really changed the decision that it really belongs to the Cleveland Krishna.
David S. Barnett: So, getting the hand of Krishna from Cambodia was possible thanks to another mythical Hindu character, Hanuman, the monkey god.
The museum acquired this sculpture in 1982 and visitors loved to pose with it. But in 2015, Sonya Rhie Mace, thanks to research that Hanuman bought in good faith, was probably stolen from his home country back in the 1970s.
Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art William Griswold contacted Cambodia’s Secretary of State and arranged for the return of the Hanuman sculpture.
William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art: The Deputy Prime Minister and I signed an agreement to transfer the domain of Hanuman to the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Dignitaries from all over the world laid garlands of flowers at the sculpture of Hanuman, which we sent back to Cambodia just a few days before.
David S. Barnett: And this gesture of goodwill on the part of the museum led to the reunion of Krishna and his hand.
For the past four years, the museum’s conservators have been working to restore the aging sculpture to its divine glory.
Beth Edelstein: One of the main problems is that when the sculpture was assembled in the 1970s, it was assembled with no intention of falling apart again.
But over the years since then, the field of conservation has moved a little further in the direction of more long-term thinking and the belief that everything we do can be undone by someone else, because we have begun to understand that nothing is permanent.
David S. Barnett: It was a long journey spanning thousands of miles and hundreds of years.
Sonya Ree Mays: I love the hand. It’s so subtle. For example, this index finger is slightly bent. This never ceases to amaze me.
David S. Barnett: And in times of national and international divisions and tensions, this is an example of cooperation in the name of art and culture.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m David S. Barnett from Cleveland.
Judy WoodruffA: Thank you, flow of ideas.
And what a wonderful example, as you just heard, of cooperation.