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Museum of Chinese in America’s Archives in Danger Due to Ongoing Blaze

A fire that broke out last night injured eight people and destroyed the top floors of a building housing the museum’s archives. The museum is still assessing the damage to its vast collection of Chinese-American cultural items.

The Museum of Chinese in America in New York during the fire on the night of January 23, 2020 (courtesy of Tomie Arai)

A five-alarm conflagration that broke out last night, January 24, at a building that houses the archives of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan has injured eight people and destroyed the building’s top floors. New York City’s fire department (FDNY) was still fighting the flames as of 11am today. The museum’s staff is working with emergency conservators to assess the damage to its prized archives.

“We’ve been operating at this fire since 8:40 yesterday evening,” said FDNY’s Chief of Fire Operations Thomas Richardson in a statement today. “At the height of the fire, we had about 200 fire and EMS personnel on the scene.”

According to Richardson, the blaze originally started on the fourth floor of MOCA’s building before spreading to the fifth floor and into the roof area. “This will be an extended operation,” he said, explaining that a deep-seated fire in the roof area remains difficult to access. The official provided no information about the cause of the fire.

A total of eight firefighters and one civilian were injured in the fire but none of the injuries are life-threatening.

“We’re in the middle of a disaster,” Nancy Yao Maasbach, MOCA’s president told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “Our team stayed on site until hoses stopped last night,” she added, audibly anxious and gasping for breath.

The building on 70 Mulberry Street is home to MOCA’s Collections and Research Center, which holds an archive of more than 65,000 artifacts, photos, memorabilia, documents, oral histories, and artwork documenting Chinese communities in America.

Maasbach told Hyperallergic that the museum is still assessing the extent of damage that was caused to the collection. “We don’t know what to expect yet,” she said. “We’re arranging a recovery space, and emergency conservators from all over the country reached out to help.”

The building is also home to the H.T. Chen & Dancers company and senior center.

“We spoke with FDNY and they assured us it’s a top priority,” Maasbach said. “This is not just about the histoiry of the Chinese American community, but the history of this entire neighborhood.”

Correction 1/27/2020 1:27pm EST: An original version of this article reported that the fire occurred in the Museum of Chinese in America. This has been updated to reflect that the fire occurred in a separate building that houses the museum’s archives.

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