Museums & Heritage

Museum of Chinese in America starts fund-raising after loss of its archive in a fire

An estimated 85,000 items are feared lost, including letters, antique wedding dresses and photographs

A police officer patrols the scene outside a building that housed the archive of the Museum of Chinese in America, destroyed by fire in New York's Chinatown AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Devastated by the loss of its archive in a fire, New York’s Museum of Chinese in America has begun raising funds for a recovery effort. As of this afternoon it had raised over $62,000 at the charity site GoFundMe.

The fire tore through a building on Mulberry Street in the city’s Chinatown neighbourhood Thursday night, likely destroying the 85,000 items stored there, museum officials say. The city’s Buildings Department has deemed the structure too unsafe to enter for several weeks, thwarting hopes of retrieving water-soaked objects or sizing up the extent of the damage. The building also housed a dance centre, a senior centre and community groups.

Nine firefighters were injured while battling the five-alarm blaze. A man who was found on the fifth floor of the building also suffered smoke inhalation before being rescued, the New York Fire Department said.

The museum itself, which is located nearby on Centre Street in a building designed by Maya Lin, now faces the prospect of being left solely with what is on display there.

Among the items housed in the five-storey Mulberry Street archive building, a former school that is treasured by the Chinatown community, were antique wedding dresses, restaurant menus from the neighbourhood dating from the early 1900s, identification papers, letters written home to China by young male immigrants, and documents related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which placed strict limits on immigration from China.

“It is the only—the single most important—repository of New York’s Chinese community,” Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of the museum, told The New York Times.

Founded in 1980, the Museum of Chinese in America is devoted to preserving the history, culture and experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States. The space designed by Maya Lin, a conversion of a former machine shop, opened in 2009. Its core exhibition presents the diverse layers of the immigrant Chinese experience, including physical traces and images of past generations.

Mayor Bill de Blasio meanwhile announced today that the city had helped to secure temporary quarters for some of the organisations displaced from the Mulberry Street building. Members of the senior centre will be able to find refuge in other senior centres, for example, and the dance company will move its administrative offices to a partner organisation in the area.

The city has also offered to store salvaged artefacts of the Museum of Chinese in America once the recovery effort gets underway.