Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 38 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned This case of Tibetan figurines.  The story is a spoiler, so I tell it in the review below.Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Oh, this one hurts me a little.  I really, really wanted the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art to be a diamond of enlightenment in the heart of Staten Island.  An amazing, secret Shangri-La in the midst of Shao-Lin.  I really did.

But it’s not to be.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
This Way to Shangri-La?

Near the geographic heart of Staten Island, high on a hill, there’s a lighthouse.  Climb the road up that hillside.  Pass the lighthouse and enter a well-to-do neighborhood of big houses. Eventually, you will reach a large stone wall, festooned on one end with distinctive Tibetan prayer flags.  Stairs lead you down to a library, exhibit hall, and a small, steep, garden.  Perched on the hill like a miniature Potala Palace, you’ve found the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan ArtJacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Who Was Jacques Marchais? And Why Tibet?

Jacques Marchais was born in 1887 to parents who clearly wanted a little French boy instead of the little Ohioan girl they got.  A theater star from a young age, Jacques moved to New York, married (husband number 2), and settled in Staten Island. In the 1920s, she developed a passion for Tibetan and Indian cultures.  In 1938, she started a gallery devoted to the art and artifacts of the region.  She collected furniture and fixtures, sculptures and statues, and esoteric Buddhas and Bodhisattvas galore.

The case of figures I noted above date back to Marchais’s childhood.  She tells the story that her mom’s grandfather acquired them in Darjeeling.  Jacques herself played with them like dolls or action figures when she was a kid, then forgot about them.  She rediscovered them in a trunk after her mother’s death, did some research and learned, from her great-grandfather’s notes, that they were from the Tibetan Pon religion. That kindled her passion for art of the region.

In addition to her gallery, Jacques Marchais decided to create a center for the study of Tibetan culture near her Staten Island home.  Marchais hired a local stonemason and together they designed a building that’s…well, it’s unique.  More on that in a second.  Construction started in 1941, and the Tibetan Center opened in 1947.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
Jacques Marchais Herself

Sadly, Jacques Marchais died in 1948.  It’s something of a miracle that her institution has survived to the present day, since she had so little time to steward it.

The Building and The Collection

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan ArtThe building and garden literally perch on the steep hillside, with what would be amazing views, if (a) there weren’t tall trees in the way and (b) you were looking at something other than Staten Island.  

The architecture is like what you might get if someone had read secondhand descriptions of Tibetan architecture but never actually seen it, and then in turn described that to an Italian stonemason living in Staten Island.  In short, a little wacky.  It includes stone walls two feet thick, trapezoidal windows with odd overhangs, stone stairs, and a faux “chanting hall.”

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

They have pictures of the original furnishings of the library and museum, which looked extremely impressive back in 1947.  Sadly times and fortunes have changed and the furniture today is much more prosaic.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
The Chanting Hall

The art is interesting, but not presented in any particularly organized fashion.  You don’t get a systematic look at the Tibetan metaphysical world, nor do you get a sense of what aspects of that world piqued Jacques Marchais’s interest.  Odd, obvious errors, like a caption that mistakes the Chinese character for “sun” for the character for “moon” raise questions about scholarship.  

Some of the pieces are absolutely beautiful, though, and I’m glad to see the museum can and does make sure they’re maintained and restored.Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan ArtAnd an adorable plush yak suggests school kids visit from time to time.

The Garden

The Garden is nice, with the potential to be amazing.  I saw it scattered with an abundance of random iron lawn furniture, festooned with yet more prayer flags, and in need of a thorough raking.  I liked its seen-better-days, gone-to-seed feel. Visiting in late fall, the sense of neglect created a romantic, seasonally appropriate melancholy.  Still, the place needs a grooming. It has/had pools on its lower terraces which were once lovely and probably stocked with koi, where today they’re stocked only with dead leaves.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

If I could suggest one thing to the directors of the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art it’s music.  This place is crying out for some discreet speakers and quiet chanting to be piped throughout.  It even has a “Chanting Hall.”  A museum’s sound design can have a huge impact on its atmosphere, particularly for a culture like Tibetan Buddhism.

The Bottom Line

Jacques Marchais’s story is fascinating–she reminds me a bit of Nicholas Roerich.  If you collect quirky places, a visit to her unique museum building is justified.  I’m happy I went once. But the randomness of the collection and the fact that there’s no strong narrative or educational thread to tie it together diminishes the value of a visit.  I don’t see myself going back there again.  

If you’re interested in Tibet, Manhattan’s Rubin Museum is much more convenient.  As is Tibet House, though I’d pick the Staten Island journey over that.

This place needs someone to take it firmly in hand, rejigger the organization, raise some funds, and spruce it up.  The garden alone has the potential to be a showstopper.  If you have always dreamed of leading the rejuvenation of a unique center for esoteric Buddhist art and culture, have I got a place for you.

Or, if you happen to be going to Historic Richmondtown (review coming soon), the Jacques Marchais Museum is a 15-minute walk from there.  With a car, you could do a “Quirky Women of Staten Island” tour and combine Jacques Marchais’s institution with Alice Austen’s home.

For most residents of and visitors to New York, this serene place might as well be in Nepal. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend getting sherpas together to make the trek.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

For Reference:

Address 338 Lighthouse Avenue, Staten Island
Website tibetanmuseum.org
Cost  General Admission:  $6

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