When flames were seen at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), few could have realised just how devastating the fire would be. The museum, which serves as a repository of many significant cultural materials that document numerous aspects of Chinese life in the United States, was thought to have lost well over 80,000 documents and artefacts during the blaze. At the time, MOCA’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach, said that the loss felt as though someone had passed away. The museum, which is located in the Chinatown area of Lower Manhattan, was devastated by the fire despite the best efforts of some 200 firefighters. Nevertheless, the latest reports from New York indicate that there may be some hope that the destruction was not quite as bad as previously thought.
The Process of Recovery
Firstly, the museum’s staff began assessing the remains of its collection soon after the fire had finally been put out. Not only were items lost to the fire itself but plenty of archives had suffered from water damage in the ensuing fight against the fire. Offers of practical assistance and funding started to pour in as the news of the blaze became more widely known in the city and the rest of the country. To make it is easier for people to donate, the museum decided to launch a GoFundMe campaign. It had raised in excess of $100,000 within a week with over 800 donors willing to pay up for the recovery process and to help rebuild MOCA’s archives.
“Some amazing volunteers and conservators have come out to offer help to us,” Maasbach said. She mentioned that other museums and the arts and culture world in general had been exceptionally generous. According to the museum’s president, this was especially useful to MOCA because she noted that the ongoing recovery effort would ultimately rely on people donating their specialist skills rather than money. Massbach said that this would help the museum to save cash during its hour of need. “We are a non-profit institution,” she said, “so, we don’t have that much money to go around.”
Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City since 2014, said that his office would be assisting MOCA during its recovery process, too. The museum was housed in a building owned by the city’s authorities, a site on Mulberrry Street that it had occupied since it first opened in 1980. In a press release, this mayor’s office said that the city had already offered to store any artefacts that are recovered from the museum in a city-owned facility as and when they are processed. “In addition, the Department of Records and Department of Cultural Affairs will liaise with cultural institutions and archivists to provide help,” the statement continued.
The Scale of the Challenge
Maasbach said the cost of recovering the archival material following its water damage would be extremely expensive. “We are talking about thousands of boxes that might have soot damage or may have been damaged by water,” she said. “The sort of sponge you use on each type of damaged item is costly.”
Part of the problem is the array of different artefacts that the museum and its volunteer helpers are trying to recover. This includes textiles, documents, photos, records of oral histories, letters, family photographic albums, memorabilia and legal paperwork from boat passages, among others. There were also numerous collections of major Chinese-American scholars that were stored at MOCA.
Although tens of thousands of items in the museum’s archives were destroyed beyond recovery, some 35,000 paper documents had already been digitised. Thankfully, these were properly backed up and the server which held them was unaffected by the fire. Nevertheless, there are some poignant losses that may never be recovered. According to MOCA, there were numerous documents, both official and personal, that stemmed from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that have probably been lost forever. This law made it much harder for Chinese people to immigrate to the United States until it was repealed in the mid-1940s and it, therefore, plays an important part in the history of Chinese people in America. In addition, several antique cheongsam – wedding dresses – had been in storage at the museum in readiness for a display. It is thought that these have all been lost.
According to MOCA, its own staff have not been allowed into the fire-damaged building to assess the loss fully. Therefore, some items that are currently thought to be irrecoverable may be better preserved. City officials have been removing boxes so that museum workers have been able to start the recovery process, however. “The hard work begins when we get our hands on these materials,” Maasbach commented. She said that although a lot of water-damaged items are sensitive to mould, helpfully it had been cold with no humidity which had helped with the recovery process so far.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.