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What The Museum of Chinese In America Lost In A Fire

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In New York City's Chinatown, an old building caught fire last Thursday night. It housed a senior center, a school and more than 80,000 artifacts belonging to a museum, the Museum of Chinese in America. To tell us about what the museum lost, we are joined now by its president, Nancy Yao Maasbach.

Welcome, and I'm so sorry for what you've experienced these last few days.

NANCY YAO MAASBACH: Thank you. It's the unthinkable.

SHAPIRO: Do you know how much of the collection was lost in this fire?

MAASBACH: When we saw the fires go up from the fourth floor to the fifth floor, obviously, our concern was quite great, and we were expecting and anticipating that everything would be burned. The good news is there are some indicators that we might be able to salvage some of the components that are in our space. So that is the latest, and we're quite anxious about it.

SHAPIRO: For those who are not familiar with the Museum of Chinese in America, tell us about the kinds of artifacts that were in the museum's collection.

MAASBACH: Really priceless - priceless not just in value but in terms of replacement. It is a 80,000-item collection that has everything from tickets from boat passages for when Chinese immigrants first came to the United States. We had a document that discussed the Chinese Exclusion Act that was dated in 1883, one year after the Exclusion Act was implemented - cheongsams, traditional Chinese dresses. As we, you know, should recall, the immigrants who came just brought so much with them, and we often were donated those items.

SHAPIRO: I understand some of your family's own history was contained in the collections.

MAASBACH: So much of my own family history is really centered around how we tried to stay connected with my parents' ancestral homes. And at that time, China was closed, so we would go to Taiwan and Hong Kong. And my father intentionally worked for Pan American Airlines, which is - no longer exists but was really the airline that connected many families back to Asia. And one of our trustees knew that my father had worked there and I had such a soft spot for Pan Am, and he donated one of the Pan American travel bags that the press corps had on the Nixon trip when they first reconnected ties with mainland China.

SHAPIRO: Take a step back and tell us about the value of a museum that doesn't have high-profile artworks or dinosaur fossils but rather documents the ephemera of a community's daily life.

MAASBACH: When we think about U.S. history and we think about, especially these days, what's included, what's taught in classrooms and, more importantly, what is not taught, I think that's really where you see the true value of a collection like ours. The American narrative is missing major fundamental pieces, like the Chinese Exclusion Act. What happens to families when they're excluded from a country but still live in it? The stories of the bachelors, these societies of men who were in Chinatowns without ever getting married - at one point in the 1910s, there were approximately 4,000 Chinese men living in Chinatown, N.Y., and approximately 35 Chinese women.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MAASBACH: Those stories are what we kept in our collection.

SHAPIRO: Now, the building that burned housed the collection, but the museum itself with the exhibition space remains intact. So tell me about how you're thinking about the future and how the museum may move forward.

MAASBACH: It is from our collections that we tell the stories that we place on view at the museum. So right now we're spending every energy and, really, every last dollar on trying to preserve the collections once we see it, once we can get our hands on it because without it, some might suggest that we were hollowed out. We need to either repair, salvage or rebuild. That is my honest opinion.

SHAPIRO: That is Museum of Chinese and America President Nancy Yao Maasbach.

Thank you for talking with us today.

MAASBACH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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