Jacques Marchais was one of the earliest collectors of Tibetan art in the United States. In her journals she wrote that her first exposure to anything Tibetan was a collection of bronze figurines passed down in her family from her great grandfather, John Joseph Norman, a merchant from Philadelphia who was active in the tea trade. As a young girl, she played with the figurines as if they were toys. Upon the death of her mother in 1927, she rediscovered the figurines among her mother’s belongings and this propelled her to delve deeper into their meaning. This led her to “deep research and constant study” in “Tibetan art – its county—its people and its religion.”
In 1938, she established an art gallery in Manhattan which specialized in the art of India and Tibet. Although she never traveled to Tibet, she amassed one of the earliest collections of Tibetan art in the United States. She acquired items through auctions and estate sales. Marchais would often keep the best pieces for herself and sell other objects in the gallery as a means to continuously build her collection. She was committed to sharing her knowledge of Tibet with the world.
In a letter to Senator Edward E. Denison of Mairon, IL (June 2, 1939) she wrote, “Being a student of Oriental philosophy and acquainted with Eastern religions- I soon found that I was acting more or less as a magnet in drawing East Indian and Tibetan deities and ritual objects to me.”
In her lifetime, Jacques Marchais amassed a collection of over one thousand objects. The collection includes sculpture, ritual objects, musical instruments, thangkas or scroll paintings and furniture. The objects are primarily from Tibet, Nepal, northern China, and Mongolia, and a few items are from Southeast Asia. The Museum was chartered in 1945, the same year the first of the two buildings was completed. The collection has been on view to the public since the Museum’s official opening in 1947. The Museum maintains a permanent exhibition of more than 125 objects and presents rotating exhibits that highlight specific examples of Tibetan and Himalayan culture.
The artifacts in the collection represent the art of Tibet and those countries which fell within the sphere of Tibetan Buddhism, including Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia and Northern China and date from the 12th through 20th century. These objects are beautifully crafted and were made for use in the monasteries of Tibet. Due to political activities in the region, many of the monasteries once housing these significant objects were destroyed and the cultural history of the Tibetan people is now preserved in museums outside of the region such as the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art.