The fire originally started on the fourth floor and then spread to the fifth floor and into the roof area of MOCA’s building on 70 Mulberry Street in New York’s Chinatown on the night of January 24, FDNY’s Chief of Fire Operations Thomas Richardson said in a statement.
The museum, which is owned by the city of New York, has been compiling items from households of Chinese immigrants over approximately 40 years, according to the New York Times. Aside from the valuable historical archive, the building also houses facilities such as a dance center, a senior citizens’ center, a vocational training office and an athletics association.
Situated in three rooms on the second floor, MOCA’s Collections and Research Center contains an archive of around 85,000 Chinese American cultural items that document the Chinese experience in the United States. The museum’s biggest fear was that the relics get damaged from water and soot.
The collection, which spans 160 years of history, includes artifacts, memorabilia, artwork, documents and oral histories. There are also one-of-a-kind relics such as ticket stubs from turn-of-the-century Chinatown theaters, tickets for boat passages, menus documenting the changes in Chinatown’s restaurants over the years, historic family photographs, traditional wedding dresses from the early 20th century and even an 1883 document about the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The loss of the archives also comes at terrible timing, as this weekend marked the traditional celebrations for the annual Chinese Lunar New Year.
While an investigation is still ongoing, the NYPD has stated that the cause of the fire was not “criminal.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday that New York City has ensured that the tenants displaced by the fire will be provided temporary locations and offered MOCA space to store recovered artifacts in city-owned locations. The Department of Records and the Department of Cultural Affairs are also reportedly working with cultural institutions and archivists to assist in recovering the items.
MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach told the Gothamist that the recovery of the archival material will be “very expensive.”
“We’re talking about thousands of boxes of things that might have soot, might have water damage. The type of sponge you use on each piece and everything (else) is costly,” she was quoted as saying.
About 35,000 pieces of the archives have been digitized and the backups were recovered, the museum confirmed on Saturday. The Museum of Chinese in America has since launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the recovery of the archives. As of this writing, the museum’s GoFundMe page has raised $84,000.
“Amazing volunteers, conservators, museums and the arts and culture world have come out to offer help,” Maasbach added, pointing out that they may also rely on some donated labor because “we do want to save money—we’re a nonprofit and we don’t have that much to go around.”