Conservation experts retrieving boxes from the collection of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) after a fire consumed the top floors of a building in New York’s Chinatown (all images courtesy of MOCA)

When a five-alarm fire tore through the building that houses the collection of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York’s Chinatown district on January 24, Nancy Yao Maasbach, the museum’s president, was almost certain that the entire collections went up in flames. Days later, she told Hyperallergic that some boxes have survived the fire, but worried that they would be severely damaged from water and soot.

However, after recovery efforts began yesterday, January 29, Maasbach adopted a more optimistic tone, announcing that parts of the collection are “very much salvageable.”

“We are so excited to share that it looks like everything we took out of the building this morning is very much salvageable,” said Maasbach at a press conference yesterday. “We had about 25 boxes get immediately sent to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where they will be immediately (put in freezers), stabilized, and then freeze-dried,” Maasbach said, according to a Gothamist report.

Some 200 boxes had already been recovered, according to MOCA’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach.

Some 200 boxes have already been recovered, according to Maasbach. The museum’s leader added that the fire did not entirely destroy the archival rooms, and that potential damage from water and soot appeared less acute than what she initially estimated. Some of the recovered boxes, she said, were found in good condition and needed only to be repackaged.

“We had about 150 boxes sent immediately to the museum where we have about 25 volunteers who are then just repositioning them, putting them in new boxes,”  said Maasbach.

MOCA holds a collection of more 85,000 items that depict and document the Chinese experience in the United States. The items include textiles, family albums, films, musical instruments, traditional Chinese traditional dresses, among others.

Damage from water and soot appeared less acute than what Maasbach initially estimated

Earlier this week, New York City pledged to assist MOCA in its efforts to recover its collection, adding that it has offered the museum a space to store recovered artifacts in a city-owned location.

Councilmember Margaret Chin said at yesterday’s press conference that other organizations that were located in the city-owned building on 70 Mulberry Street — HT Chen & Dancers company, a senior center run by the Chinese-American Planning Council, the Chinatown Manpower job center, and the United East Athletics Association — were all provided temporary spaces.

“With the entire city celebrating Lunar New Year, we recognize the urgency to make sure that the needs of the displaced community group and the New Yorkers that they serve are met,” said Chin.

Some of the recovered boxes were found in good condition and needed only to be repackaged.

HT Chen, the founder of HT Chen & Dancers company, told WNYC Radio reporter Shumita Basu that the first thing he rescued was a rare Chinese orchid plant that survived the fire. “Chen told me he yelled and jumped when he saw it emerge,” the reporter tweeted.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...