Fire at Museum of Chinese in America Caused Less Damage Than Initially Feared

Around 200 boxes recovered from the building have been deemed “very much salvageable,” but they represent only a “fraction” of the museum’s collection

Among the artifacts believed to be lost are letters written by Chinese immigrants, photographs of Chinatown and an 1883 document on the Chinese Exclusion Act. Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Editor's Note, January 30, 2020: A fire at the Museum of Chinese in America’s archives may have caused less damage than initially feared, reports Sophia Chang for Gothamist. Per MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach, roughly 200 boxes recovered from the Chinatown building that houses the museum’s archives appear to be “very much salvageable.” Twenty-five of the rescued boxes are undergoing stabilization and freeze-drying in Pennsylvania, while another 150 are being repackaged by museum volunteers. Still, the museum said in a tweet Thursday, “The boxes recovered are a fraction of the overall collection which is still at the fire-damaged 70 Mulberry Street. Much more work to do and long road ahead.”

The Museum of Chinese in America, a 40-year-old institution dedicated to the preservation of Chinese American history, is believed to have lost nearly all of its 85,000-piece collection in a devastating fire last Thursday.

According to Dennis Romero of NBC News, the fire broke out at 70 Mulberry Street, a building in New York City’s Chinatown where the museum stores its archives. The blaze, which began on the fourth floor and spread upward to the roof, does not appear to have traveled to MOCA’s second-floor storage area, but museum officials worry that water sprayed onto the building has caused irreparable damage to thousands of precious artifacts.

“One hundred percent of the museum’s collection, other than what is on view,” was held at 70 Mulberry, MOCA’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach, tells Annie Correal of the New York Times, adding that she is “just distraught” over the news.

The building–a former public school–also housed the Chen Dance Center, a number of community groups and a senior center that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called a “pillar to the Chinatown community.” Nine firefighters sustained minor injuries while battling the flames, and a 59-year-old man is in serious but stable condition, according to the Times. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Because the building has been deemed structurally unsound, museum workers will not be able to enter the property for two to three weeks, Maasbach tells NBC News. This has made it difficult to assess the extent of the loss, and may worsen damage to waterlogged items that might have been saved had conservators been able to reach them quickly.

MOCA, which is located near the 70 Mulberry property, has amassed a “nationally-significant” trove of artifacts that tells the story of Chinese life in America. The collection spans 160 years and includes such one-of-a-kind relics as menus from Manhattan’s earliest Chinese restaurants, tickets for boat passages, historic family photographs, traditional wedding dresses from the early 20th century, and letters from lonely bachelors who worked in the United States so they could send money home to family.

“[T]hey didn’t live a full life because of discrimination,” Maasbach tells the Times.

Also among the documents believed to be lost is a late 19th-century document regarding the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration from China to the United States and deemed Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization.

“A museum I have visited and value, the @mocanyc helps fill a void in our understanding of America,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III tweeted in the wake of the fire. “The destruction of their collection is a tragedy. This loss is a reminder that we in the museum field must do everything possible to secure our collections.”

Prior to the incident, MOCA had digitized some 35,000 items in its holdings; those files are safely stored on a backup computer, reports Monica Haider of CNN. A GoFundMe page launched on January 24 has now raised more than $60,000 dollars to help MOCA’s recovery efforts.

“Recover, repair, rebuild” is the community’s new motto, says Maasbach in an interview with CNN.

But even with their sights focused on the future, museum staff faced the difficult task of informing families who had donated items to MOCA that their precious heirlooms had likely been lost.

"I think the most painful part,” Maasbach tells NBC News, “is that these are families who trusted us with their collections.”

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