A year after a fire broke out in its New York archive, prompting a herculean effort to salvage its historical artefacts, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) today launched a digital platform with Google Arts & Culture to make hundreds of digitised images of its treasures available online.
The chief attraction is a new virtual exhibition titled Trial by Fire: The Race to Save 200 Years of Chinese American History, which traces the recovery effort after the fire nearly destroyed the museum’s collection of more than 85,000 items on 23 January 2020.
It draws on social media posts, photographs, videos and news reports documenting the blaze and its aftermath to paint a stirring portrait of how MOCA marshalled support for retrieving the objects that survived at its archive at 70 Mulberry Street in Chinatown—from vintage Chinese restaurant signs to opera costumes to letters and photographs. The museum proper, at nearby 215 Centre Street, survived intact but is currently closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
MOCA says that 95% of the material in the archive was salvaged and is now undergoing conservation at a temporary collections and research center that opened last autumn in a building a block from the museum. Many objects suffered water damage from New York firefighters’ battle against the blaze.
In addition to Trial by Fire, over 200 high-resolution images from MOCA’s collections will be available on the platform as well as others from the permanent exhibition With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America. Visitors can explore nine rooms in the museum enhanced by video and audio and delve into objects that interest them by using Google’s Street View feature.
Also available on the platform is My MOCA Story, a crowdsourced social-media storytelling project initiated last year to allay Covid-19 stress by inviting people to share the significance of a special object or heirloom in their homes. A mobile app for experiencing the digital platform is also available for downloading on Android and iOS devices.
Nancy Yao Maasbach, the museum’s president, predicts that the Google platform will enrich scholarship on the history of Chinese American culture. “One of the unexpected silver linings of this period of time are creative and intentional new partnerships,” she says.
In October MOCA was designated one of “America’s cultural treasures” in an initiative by the Ford Foundation and awarded a $3m grant to bolster its operations.