A Fire May Have Destroyed Tens of Thousands of Artifacts From New York’s Museum of Chinese in America

Nine firefighters and one civilian were injured tackling the five-alarm blaze at a storage facility.

The 5-alarm fire at the Museum of Chinese in America, courtesy of FDNY.

Leaders of the Museum of Chinese in American (MOCA) on New York City’s Lower East Side are still grappling with the effects of a devastating five-alarm fire at its storage facility late Thursday night. The blaze may have destroyed up to 85,000 invaluable historical items and ephemera that collectively tell the story of more than a century of Chinese immigration in the US.

MOCA has set up a GoFundMe page in recent days that has already raised over $60,000 as it waits to assess the full damage of the fire at 70 Mulberry Street. A growing number of artists, gallerists, and art organizations working in Chinatown have started to organize a charity auction and a benefit exhibition to raise funds for the museum, according to Taole Zhu, a visual artist who runs an art space in Chinatown called MU PROJECT. In addition, there will be a series of workshops related to archives and artifact conservation for artists and professionals to attend when the recovery process begins, Zhu added. The city has also offered to store recovered artifacts in a city-owned space as recovery gets underway.

“It was like how I felt when someone passed away,” museum president Nancy Yao Maasbach told CNN about her initial reaction to the fire. She did not immediately respond to Artnet News for a request for comment.

Image via Twitter

Image via Twitter

The fire broke out around 8:45 p.m. on the upper floors of the Mulberry Street building, according to a report in Gothamist. Over 200 firefighters battled the blaze at its height. Nine were injured, along with one civilian. The civilian was reportedly rescued from the roof and hospitalized for smoke-inhalation related injuries.

The items in storage include many donations by Chinese families whose ancestors immigrated to the US, including textiles, wedding dresses, menus from Chinatown’s earliest restaurants, handwritten letters, and tickets for ship passage, just to name a few examples.

“There’s dresses—traditional Chinese dresses, cheongsams from the turn of the century. There was just an endless list of priceless family albums, postcards from Chinatown from the early 1900s. I mean, these things are not easily acquired. We have all the movie posters from the theaters that used to be in Chinatown that no longer exist, the ticket stubs from those things. And we have this signage from early restaurants and laundromats in Chinatown and these things are just priceless,” Maasbach said.

The 5-alarm fire at the Museum of Chinese in America, courtesy of FDNY.

The 5-alarm fire at the Museum of Chinese in America, courtesy of FDNY.

She does not believe the fire reached the second floor where the archives are stored, but water damage is nonetheless of utmost concern right now, she said.

A spokesman for New York’s department of buildings told the New York Times that inspectors have determined there was “significant interior fire damage” to the building and that it is not safe for occupancy. Museum officials will likely not be able to enter the building for several weeks.

In addition to MOCA storage, the building was home to several nonprofits that cater to Chinese Americans, including a senior citizen center. It was formerly a school for immigrants.

MOCA was founded in 1980 and is dedicated to preserving the history, heritage, culture, and diverse experiences  of people of Chinese descent in the US. It “promotes dialogue and understanding among people of all cultural backgrounds, bringing 160 years of Chinese American history to vivid life through its innovative exhibitions, educational and cultural programs,” according to a statement on its website.

“The MOCA archives are a crucial resource for preserving the history of Chinatown and lower Manhattan,” said Jas Chana, associate director of media and communications, at the nearby Tenement Museum  told Artnet News. “The archives have been invaluable to the Tenement Museum as it has worked in recent years to incorporate the story of Chinese immigration into its programming, such as on its latest permanent tour Under One Roof. We hope what has been damaged can be recovered in full.”

The museum’s main space, located at 215 Centre Street, a few blocks away, will still have normal operating hours. MOCA posted this message on its GoFundMe page:


Thank you for your thoughts and prayers as we attempt to recover artifacts from the fire that has devastated MOCA’s archives at 70 Mulberry Street.

For 40 years, MOCA has preserved and protected 85,000 artifacts. Those artifacts are now in jeopardy.

In response to your overwhelming support and inquiries as to how you can help, we welcome your support as we anticipate a long road ahead.

The MOCA Team

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.