Fire likely destroyed 85,000 pieces for NYC museum on Chinese migration, officials say

A museum in Chinatown has possibly lost 85,000 items after a fire Thursday blazed through a building nearby which stored them, officials said. Photo courtesy of Museum of Chinese in America

Jan. 26 (UPI) — A fire in New York City has likely destroyed 85,000 museum pieces on Chinese migration to the United States, almost the entire collection, officials said.

The fire broke out Thursday night at a community center in Manhattan’s Chinatown that stored most of the Museum of Chinese in America’s acquisitions.

The blaze injured 10 people, including nine firefighters and a 59-year-old man. The firefighters sustained minor injuries and the man, 59, has been reported to be in serious but stable condition.

The cause of the fire, which broke out on the fourth floor and spread to the roof, was under investigation.

Officials said Friday they fear the fire likely destroyed all 85,000 pieces housed in the museum’s second-floor storage space in the building. The items told the story of Chinese migration from tickets for ship passage to handwritten letters, textiles and restaurant menus.

“One hundred percent of the museum’s collection, other than what is on view” has been impacted, museum President Nancy Yao Maasbach said.

She added that she was “just distraught” after she heard the news.

The community building at 70 Mulberry St., where the fire broke out, was a former school that educated generations of migrants before it became a cultural landmark in the neighborhood. The building also housed a senior center, the Chen Dance Center and some community groups.

The Museum of Chinese in America, located on Centre Street nearby, opened in 2009, designed by Maya Lin. It often used copies of documents and artifacts in exhibits to keep originals safe at the storage space, Massbach said.

Pieces believed to be lost include letters of lonely bachelor immigrants working in the United States to send money home “even though they didn’t live a full life because of discrimination,” Maasbach said.

Traditional wedding dresses from the early 1900s, items emigrants brought from suitcases, Chinatown postcards, Chinese-American newspapers, family albums and documents about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were possibly lost also.

“It’s priceless,” Maasbach said. “I think the most painful part is that these are families who trusted us with their collections.”

On a positive note, the museum tweeted Friday evening that 35,000 pieces digitized from its collections have been recovered despite the possible loss of the originals.

The Museum of Chinese in America tweeted Saturday that it has set up a GoFundMe page in response to those who have reached out and asked how they can help it after the devastation to its archives from the fire.


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