The Jim Thompson House is a museum in central Bangkok, Thailand, housing the art collection of American businessman and architect Jim Thompson, the museum designer and former owner. Built in 1959, the museum spans one rectangular rai of land (approximately half an acr).
Following his relocation to Bangkok and the establishment of the Thai Silk Company Limited in 1948, Thompson also became a major collector of Southeast Asian art, which at the time, was not well-known internationally. Attracted by the subtlety of their craftsmanship and expression, he built a large collection of historical Buddhist statues and traditional Thai paintings made of wood, cloth, and paper that depicted the life of Buddha and the legend of Vessantara Jataka. He collected secular art not only from Thailand but from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, frequently travelling to those countries on buying trips. His collection also consisted of white and blue porcelain from China, which made its way into Thailand around the 16th and 17th centuries.
In 1958, he began what was to be the pinnacle of his architectural achievement, a new home to live in and to showcase his art collection. The museum was planned to consist of a complex combination of six traditional Thai-style houses, primarily constructed of wood, and various old Thai structures that were collected from all parts of Thailand in the 1950s and 1960s. His home sits on a klong (canal) across from Bangkrua, where his company’s weavers were then located. Most of the 19th-century houses were dismantled and moved from Ayutthaya, but the largest, a weaver’s house (now the living room), came from Bangkrua.
After Thompson’s disappearance in 1967, the house came under the control of The James H. W. Thompson Foundation under the royal patronage of H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. At 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, Pathumwan, only a block away from Bangkok National Stadium, guided tours are available daily.
Built in 1959, the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok is a peaceful, half-acre respite in the busiest part of the city for tourists. The Jim Thompson House serves as an oasis of art and culture for travelers with accidental retail overload. The landscaped grounds and tranquil garden are in sharp contrast to Bangkok’s hectic heart.
Thompson inspecting silk pieces at the canal side, most probably in the village of Ban Krua, across from his residence. Convinced that the beauty and quality of Thai silk would have an appeal outside Thailand, Thompson successfully exported his silks internationally.
Jim Thompson was an American entrepreneur credited with repairing the Thai silk industry. After beginning his career as an architect, Thompson quit and joined the Delaware National Guard. During World War II, Jim Thompson was recruited to serve as an operative for the Office of Strategic Services—the predecessor of the modern-day CIA. He arrived in Japanese-occupied Thailand right after Japan’s surrender and set up the OSS office in Bangkok.
After leaving service, Thompson and his partner founded the Thai Silk Company Limited in 1948. The move was logical; Thompson’s father had been successful in the textile industry. The Thai Silk Company became very profitable as Jim Thompson traveled Southeast Asia extensively, building an intimate knowledge of the region. He also amassed artwork and rare antiques along the way, eventually constructing a mansion (now the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok) to showcase them.
On March 26, 1967, while staying in a bungalow in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, 61-year-old Jim Thompson went for a short Easter Sunday stroll and never returned.
The House and the Garden
The visitor finds the Jim Thompson’s old residence and tropical garden down a narrow Bangkok lane, just a block away from the bustling shopping districts.
The Thai house which is named “The Jim Thompson House Museum” was designed and built by Jim Thompson (September 1958 – April 1959). The residence is built on teak pillars a full floor above the ground.
For his new home, Thompson acquired several Thai houses from the Ayutthaya region, but the oldest and the most impressive dates from around 1800 and was a weaver’s house from the Cham village of Bahn Krua.
Thompson on the building site. He brought a group of skilled carpenters down from Ayutthaya to reassemble the woodwork on a property across from Bahn Krua, the Cham village that wove his silk.
The house during construction. The property is facing the canal, or klong, across from the 250-year old Bahn Krua village, home to Jim Thompson’s Cham silk weavers.
“Jungle” is how Jim Thompson described his densely-planted garden, with lofty palms, golden bamboos and creepers. In general outline, the planting is the same as it was in Jim Thompson’s time.
Two small buildings, formerly servant’s quarters, have been turned into additional museum display space. On this photograph, the old gardener’s house where paintings and manuscripts are now displayed.
The garden is constantly changing but the ambience has shifted from uncontrolled chaos to controlled chaos thanks to professional care. Here, the red ginger (Alpinia) grows nearby the small pond in the rear garden.
The Art Collection
Thompson was an architect and designer, so he purposefully constructed his house from wooden panels and walls taken from old structures throughout Thailand. The finished property represents multiple styles and regions.
While the design of the house itself is impressive, the real treasures await inside. During his travels in Southeast Asia, Jim Thompson collected antique Buddha statues and rare artwork including paintings and porcelain. Even much of the furniture is intricately carved and beautiful. Of course, you will also see displays of old looms and colorful silk.
Southeast Asian art
Thompson has been a collector of Thai antiques since 1946. In his new home, he displayed beautifully his collection of old Thai paintings, Buddhist sculpture, Chinese blue and white and various objets d’art. In general, the display of the collection remains the same as it was in Jim Thompson’s time. Only the old pantry and servants quarters have been converted into exhibition pavilions in order to display benjarong porcelains, small objects and paintings.
Buddha Images Collection
Dvaravadi, Lopburi and Ayutthaya Styles
Standing Buddha image, Unknown, 600/700
“Clothed in the robe of a monk, the Buddha held a flap of the robe in his left hand. The gentle outline of the hips give a remarkable impression of movement.” Dvaravadi School.
Standing Buddha image, Unknown, 700/800
Bust of Buddha in brown limestone. “The wide face with a strong nose and fleshy lips, round eyes and arched and joined eyebrows are very characteristic of the Dvaravadi school.”
Head of Buddha, Unknown, 1250/1300
“The hairstyle is of small curls topped by a flame-decorated ornament… A wide face with a strong chin, a wide mouth, slightly arched brows, and half-closed eyes.” Ayutthaya school, U-Thong style.
Buddha Meditating on the Naga, Unknown, 1200/1300
“The thoughtful face, with closed eyes, reveals this to be an example of the Bayon art.”
Other Sculptures Collection
Srivijaya, Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Burmese Styles
Head of Surya, Unknown, 700/800
Head of Surya, the Hindu sun-god, with large conical headdress; the face is flat and surrounded by a discus incised with lines representing the sun rays.
Head of Ardhanari, Unknown, 900/1000
“Ardhanari, a Brahmin god representing Siva in half-male, half female form, symbolizes the union of masculine and feminine energies.”
Burmese spirit figure, Unknown, 1750/1850
One of the four wooden figures of Burmese spirits, or Nat, which came from near Amarapura in Burma. These figures were given to Thompson when he went to Burma as an official guest in the 1950s.
The Life of Buddha Collection
Phra Bot, sacred cloth, and paintings, Bangkok School.
The Life of Buddha, Unknown, 1825/1875
The Birth of Buddha; Queen Mahamaya is standing under a tree and holding on a branch, giving birth to Gautama Buddha, in Lumpini. On the right side, the new born prince is surrounded by Indra, colored in green, and an angel.
The Life of Buddha, Unknown, 1850/1900
Buddha returns to Kapilavatthu; the seated Buddha is preaching to his father and is in a meditative pose; he is surrounded by his disciples before the King and the court.
Thai religious Tales Collection
Vessantara Jataka and Phra Malai.
The Vessantara Jataka, Unknown, 1800/1850
An illustration of the thirtieth episode of the Vessantara Jataka, Nakhonkan, or the triumphant return from exile of Prince Vessantara to the Kingdom of Siva. This painting comes from the ancient northern kingdom of Lanna, now Chiang Mai province.
Phra Malai Visits the Underworld, Unknown, 1850/1900
The legend of Phra Malai, a buddhist saint known for his travels to heaven and hell, figures prominently in Thai religious treatises. He is traditionally represented wearing the saffron robe, and holding a fan. On this painting, he visits the underworld in his quest for saving the mankind from sin and hell.
Thai Folklore, Village scenes, Horoscope Collection
Cockfight at the Village, Unknown, 1880/1920
Horoscope, Unknown, 1850/1900
Brahman Jati, the Siamese horoscope; here the year of the dog. A complete set of twelve astrological signs is displayed at the museum.
Benjarong & Lainamthong Collection
Ceramics made in China for the Thai royalties
In 1963, Jim Thompson purchased an important collection of benjarong or Sino-Thai porcelains. Here, a covered bowl with a black background decorated with Thepanom and mythical animals.
A collection of three “toh” jars, with polychrome floral designs on a red-orange background, yellow and grey bands with floral scrolls around the rims.
Large covered bowl with gold knob rim and green foot rim, gold flowers, green foliage and birds on white background.
“Lai Nam Thong, Sino-Thai porcelain with gold background, first half of 19th century. It is delicately ornamented with flowers, leaves and birds”.
Blue & White Ceramics Collection
From China and Annam
A collection of Annamese blue and white.
Decorative Arts Collection
Chinese & Siamese artistry
The Mouse House: “A fanciful little structure that was made by 19th-century Chinese carvers to house pet white mice.”
Foundation Philosophy And Objectives
The James H. W. Thompson Foundation is dedicated to the conservation and dissemination of Thailand’s rich cultural heritage. Through its support of research, seminars, conferences, exhibitions and publications, the Foundation has endeavored to create a better understanding and appreciation of such traditional Thai art forms as sculpture, painting, literature, dance, song, puppetry and textiles.
It is this cultural patrimony which is at the core of Thai identity. However, Thai identity, and the culture which imbues it, are dynamic, not static. They are constantly evolving. Articulating and extolling the past and its traditions should not be at the expense of appreciating and encouraging those emergent forms of cultural expression which find their inspiration, but not their limits, in the bedrock of traditional culture. Similarly, embracing change and innovation in Thai art forms should not entail a rejection or denial of the value of Thailand’s cultural past. It has been said that “the past is the best prophet of the future.” However, the past and its traditions should not control the future but rather provide a guide to the roots and meaning, the shape and pace of change.
Jim Thompson, in creating an international market for Thai silk, appreciated the value of the past while embracing the creative energy of innovative change. The James H. W. Thompson Foundation, established in his name and infused with and fortified by his love for Thailand and its arts, will continue to both cherish the past and welcome the future.
The Foundation operates the Jim Thompson House museum, one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions. The museum, open every day, welcomes hundreds of visitors daily. Guided tours are provided in Thai, English, French, and Japanese. In recent years the Foundation has slightly rearranged the collection and rooms in the house in the interest of security and convenience of visitors. However, the Foundation has maintained a general policy of neither buying nor selling, and, thus, the collection owned by Jim Thompson has remained virtually intact. Two small buildings, formerly servants’ quarters, have been turned into additional museum display space.
Visitors’ entrance fees and other donations enable the Foundation to provide grants related to the preservation and dissemination of Thai art and culture. Grant applications must be made in writing to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. The grant request should include background information about the person or institution making the request, the purpose of the grant and a proposed budget for the use of grant funds. All grantees are asked to provide progress reports and a final summary, including a financial report, upon completion. The Foundation also initiates selected seminar, exhibition and publication projects. In addition, the Foundation has provided administrative support to the newly created Thai Textile Society.
Center For Textiles And The Arts
Construction of the Jim Thompson Center for Textiles and the Arts was completed in November 2003. The two-story steel and cement structure, with its traditional wooden façade, provides 220 square meters of secure, climate and light controlled museum and exhibition space. The Center stages exhibitions focusing on Southeast Asian textiles, costumes, art and cultural traditions. Leading art historians and academics are invited by the Foundation to serve as guest curators for the various exhibits which include loans from public and private collections.