Chinatown Museum Gets $3 Million After Fire Threatens Its Archives

Chinatown Museum Gets $3 Million After Fire Threatens Its Archives


For the Museum of Chinese in America, this year has been one disaster after another.

In January, a fire ripped through the upper floors of the Chinatown building that held the museum’s archives, endangering roughly 85,000 artifacts. Then the coronavirus pandemic, which had prompted a surge in anti-Asian harassment, also shut the museum down for months.

But in late September, Nancy Yao Maasbach, the museum’s president, got a call with some good news. It was from the Ford Foundation, which told her that the museum had been chosen to receive a grant — part of a new initiative, organized by some of the nation’s most prominent philanthropists, to provide pandemic relief for arts organizations run by people of color.

The amount, the museum learned this week, is $3 million, which represents more than an entire year’s budget for the small institution.

“This is an absolute game changer for us,” Ms. Maasbach said at a news conference on Friday. The grant will be disbursed over four years, and will first go toward conserving and repairing the portions of the collection that were threatened in January’s fire.

The help was desperately needed.

In March, the museum had unloaded hundreds of boxes of heirlooms from its collection at 70 Mulberry Street and hired a company specializing in disaster cleanup to salvage what it could of the artifacts, which chronicle nearly two centuries of Chinese-American history and culture. (The primary issue was water damage because firefighters had pumped water into the building for more than 20 hours.) About 95 percent of the collection was saved, but it was a multimillion dollar process — some of which would be covered by insurance money and donations.

And despite the state allowing museums to open at the end of August, the museum’s main space, on Centre Street, remains closed because its confined spaces pose too much of a risk during the pandemic.

“Given the situation with the shuttered operations, we were really struggling,” Ms. Maasbach said. “We were really counting every penny.”

Next week, the museum will show signs of life in Chinatown when it opens a temporary space on Howard Street, a block away from its Centre Street home.

Ms. Maasbach said that she hoped the museum would be there for no more than six years while the fire-stricken Mulberry Street location is rebuilt. The city started to demolish that building months ago, but the process was halted by protests from activists and community members. In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would provide $80 million to rebuild the site, with input from the public.

The initiative providing $3 million for the museum, America’s Cultural Treasures, is expected to offer a total of $81 million in funding to 20 organizations that are considered “significant national anchors for artistic and cultural diversity in America.” About half of them are based in New York City, including El Museo del Barrio and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Although the Museum of Chinese in America is closed, it is planning to display some of its artifacts inside the windows of its main building beginning next week. Some of the heirlooms on view will be from the archives that were saved from January’s fire.



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