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The Museum of Chinese in America’s building on Centre Street. Its holdings are kept at 70 Mulberry Street nearby.

Museum of Chinese in America’s Collection Likely Devastated after Manhattan Fire

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 structure serves as an office and acquisition space for the museum, whose current exhibition venue is at nearby Centre Street, and is also a senior center and a community cornerstone.

Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of the museum, told the New York Times that the five-story building, located at 70 Mulberry Street in Chinatown, 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 fire.

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. Formerly the home of P.S. 23, a school that had educated predominantly immigrant children from when it opened in the 1890s until it shuttered in 1975, the building most recently served as a place where residents of the Chinatown community could go for employment services and cultural programming. It also provided space for Chen Dance Center.

Maasbach told the Times that parts of the roof and upper floors have collapsed and that the building is structurally unsound. As a result, the museum likely won’t be able to determine the state of the collection for weeks. Any items not damaged from the flames may be beyond repair after being doused with water during the struggle to extinguish the blaze. Maasbach also confirmed that some 35,000 items from the archive were digitized and backed up.

“As we continue to receive information from officials, we are preparing for the possibility that the collection is severely damaged or lost,” tweeted the museum, which launched a GoFundMe to help recover its archive as well as support the other organizations impacted by the fire. “We anticipate a long road ahead.”

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