A fire tore through the building where the Museum of Chinese in America’s holdings are stored on Thursday night, injuring nine firefighters and one civilian and possibly destroying most of the beloved Manhattan institution’s vast collection, which explores Chinese American heritage through more than 85,000 personal belongings, artifacts, and artworks.
The five-story Chinatown building, which serves as an office and acquisition space for the museum, whose current exhibition space is at nearby Centre Street, is also a senior center and community cornerstone. Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of the museum, told the New York Times that the building housed “one-hundred percent of the museum’s collection, other than what is on view.” That collection—shaped since 1980, when the institution, then known as the New York Chinatown History Project, began documenting the neighborhood’s residents—includes handwritten correspondence, oral histories, menus, movie posters, suitcases owned by émigrés, traditional cheongsam wedding dresses, vintage restaurant signage, and a document from the 1883 Chinese Exclusion Act, all of which may be among the thousands of items lost to the blaze. The Times reports that 35,000 items from the archive were digitized and backed up.
Firefighters responded to the conflagration at around 8:40 PM on Thursday night and were still at the scene by Friday morning, on the eve of Chinese New Year. The address, 70 Mulberry Street, was previously a school that had educated predominantly immigrant children from when it opened in the 1890s until it shuttered in 1975. More recently, it assisted the Chinatown community through employment services and cultural programming and also provided space for Chen Dance Center.
“As we continue to receive information from officials, we are preparing for the possibility that the collection is severely damaged or lost,” the museum tweeted. “We anticipate a long road ahead.”