On Thursday, January 23, 2020, a fire destroyed much of the collection of the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. The fire broke out at 70 Mulberry Street, a Chinatown building where the museum’s archives were kept. Museum officials worry that few items from the 85,000-piece collection made it out safely.
Nancy Yao Maasbach told the New York Times that the fire destroyed “one hundred percent of the museum’s collection, other than what is on view.”
The museum is famous for housing important artifacts that tell the story of Chinese life in America, spanning 160 years. The pieces archived at 70 Mulberry Street included menus from early Chinese restaurants, tickets for boat passages, family photographs, handwritten letters, and traditional wedding dresses from the early 1900s. An 1883 document on the Chinese Exclusion Act was also stored in the building. It’s unknown whether any of those pieces have been spared from the flames or the water used to extinguish the fire.
The extent of the damage is impossible to assess at the moment, as the building has been deemed structurally unsound and museum workers won’t be allowed to enter for weeks.
According to the museum’s Facebook page, 35,000 objects from the collection have been digitized, and the back-ups are currently safe.
Some of the pieces that are thought to have been destroyed in the fire had been donated by families. “I think the most painful part,” said Maasbach, “is that these are families who trusted us with their collections.”
The building, a former school, housed several community groups, including the Chen Dance Center, and was a senior center.