By LEE LAWRENCE
Staten Island, N.Y.
In Phil Borges's photograph, the shaved heads of three Tibetan Buddhist nuns draw an arched silhouette against gray skies and mountains. The caption, printed on the protective glass, identifies them as Kalsang, Ngawang and Dechen, all in their 20s and survivors of two years of harsh imprisonment for protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In other photographs, a 9-year-old girl carries her baby sister on her back, her unkempt hair reaching out like tentacles, and 81-year-old goatherd Tseten leans on his staff, his face as lined as the arid hills behind him.
They are part of "Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion," a collection of 32 hand-tinted works currently on display at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. In some respects, they are the perfect choice for this small, idiosyncratic museum, situated rather incongruously in Staten Island—New York City's most suburban borough.
In constructing a Himalayan-inspired center—high windows with flared borders, a pagoda-like roof and transoms of protruding timbers—its founder hoped to foster an understanding of Tibetan culture and religion. Mr. Borges's coupling of beautiful portraits with their subjects' stories furthers that goal, generating empathy and quickening curiosity.
Yet the photographs also seem incongruous. Hanging on yellow panels, these almost monochromatic portraits contrast with the bronze hues of giant incense burners and temple statuary displayed against stone walls and in glass cases. Add to this mix some hands-on exhibits, one of which unleashes a loud Buddhist chant, and one begins to get a sense that the museum is not entirely sure what it wants to be.
Indeed, it may never have known. It was founded by a rather eccentric woman whose father so wanted a boy that he named her Jacques Marchais. Having lost her father young, she went on stage, shedding her exotic name for the more fashionable "Edna Norman." In 1916, as the museum's executive director Meg Ventrudo tells it, the young actress traveled to Boston to perform in a musical comedy and "for the first time her mother does not accompany her. And she elopes with the musician." Three children and a divorce later, she reclaimed her masculine name, keeping it even after remarrying.
Having played as a child with Tibetan figurines her grandfather had brought back from Asia, Mme. Marchais (as she insisted on being called) began collecting Indian and Tibetan Buddhist works in the 1930s. These were just beginning to attract scholarly attention, and after the Jacques Marchais Gallery opened in Manhattan, a reviewer for the New York Times wrote in 1939 that the idols "looked thoroughly vicious" and that the gallery "is a nice place to visit, but it must be awful to live there."
Mme. Marchais disagreed. Inspired by a reconstructed temple at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, she set out to build a Tibetan retreat, complete with "chanting room," monk cells and Buddhist devotional objects. With her husband, Harry Klauber, she chose a hillside property on Staten Island because it was "viney with briars, stone-riddled and wild," as she later told a Newsweek reporter.
Construction proceeded in fits and starts throughout World War II, and in July 1945 Mme. Marchais opened the library, a single-story stone building filled with some 2,000 books on Asia. This "first unit of a Tibetan museum and temple," a columnist for the New York Sun reassured his readers, "does not mean an attempt to convert New York to that phase of Buddhism called Lamaism." Rather, it was an attempt to further "in this country the cause of Oriental art, particularly that of Tibet." Indeed, as Mme. Marchais proudly noted, many works previously labeled Chinese were being recognized as Tibetan, Nepalese or Mongolian.
By October 1947, the center was complete: A full-page photograph in Life magazine shows Mme. Marchais seated on a throne flanked by bronze Nepalese lions, regal from her blond bouffant hair to the bejeweled sandals on her feet.
Today, the library has been partitioned into an office and visitor's entrance. While the Nepalese lions are still by the back wall of the museum, the effect is nowhere as dramatic as in the 1940s photograph. And in a garden festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and presided over by an alabaster Burmese Buddha, there peeks through the foliage the occasional metal baboon. "Garden follies," Ms. Ventrudo says with a laugh, as she points out stone bunnies in a flower bed.
Had Mme. Marchais been able to pursue her research and travel to Tibet as she so hoped, perhaps she would have refined her vision for the museum. As it was, she and Mr. Klauber died within a year of the museum's opening, leaving it caught in a quirky category somewhere between folly and serious institution. Because the buildings are not climate-controlled, the museum can display only a fraction of its 1,200 pieces, including silk paintings and wood furniture, and the only Tibetans in residence are those in Mr. Borges's photographs.
Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.