Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

The archives of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan in flames on the night of January 24 (all photos courtesy the MOCA)

Tens of thousands of unique cultural items that belonged to the collection of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan have been severely damaged in a fire that consumed its archives on the night of January 24.

Last Friday, a conflagration erupted on the top floors of a historic building on 70 Mulberry Street in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood. The building houses MOCA’s Collections and Research Center, which holds an archive of about 85,000 artifacts, photos, memorabilia, documents, oral histories, and artwork documenting the Chinese experience in the United States. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

According to MOCA’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach, the building’s ceiling collapsed from the fire, causing significant damage to nearly all of the items. “It looks like we might be able to get some of the boxes tomorrow, but they’re severely damaged,” she told Hyperallergic. The surviving boxes, she added, are soiled by soot and water.

A close-up reveals surviving boxes at MOCA’s archives

The damaged items include textiles, family albums, films, musical instruments, traditional Chinese traditional dresses, and others.

There were so many collections that were donated by families,” Maasbach said. “It’s a multidimensional and diverse collection of precious Chineses-American items, and the most professionally organized in the country.”

Meanwhile, the museum launched a fundraising campaign for the recovery of its archives. So far, it has raised over $65,000 from 900 donors.

“It will be very expensive to conserve some of these items,” Maasbach explained. “Every page and every document will have to been individually restored, and it’s not going to be in good condition.” Maasbach added that seeing initial estimates for the cost of the recovery made her feel “nervous.”

“We’re only a small cultural institution. We have no endowment, no savings account,” the administrator said.

The city-owned building on 70 Mulberry Street is also home to the HT Chen & Dancers company and senior center. The museum’s operations on 215 Centre Street will continue as usual.

Earlier today, January 27, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City has helped secure temporary locations for tenants displaced by the fire.

“70 Mulberry Street is a pillar of Chinatown, and I stand with the entire community as recovery efforts continue,” de Blasio said in an emailed statement. “We will do everything in our power to help these incredible organizations rebuild and bring this historic building back to life.”

According to the mayor’s office, the city has offered MOCA space to store recovered artifacts in city-owned location as needed once recovery is completed. It added that the Department of Records and the Department of Cultural Affairs are coordinating with cultural institutions and archivists to provide assistance in recovering the items.

“The Museum of Chinese in America and HT Chen and Dancers are vital, indispensable and beloved cultural institutions that collect and preserve the history and experiences of Americans of Chinese descent and pass that history and its traditions along to present and future generations,” said Acting Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kathleen Hughes. “Along with our colleagues in City government, we will be here every step of the way to help these groups grapple with the loss and chart their path forward.”

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Follow him on Instagram @hakimbishara and send him your tips, comments, and questions at hakim@hyperallergic.com.