Yue Ma in Conversation With the Metropolitan Archivist

Yue Ma is the Director of Collections and Research at the Museum of Chinese in America

Photograph of Yue Ma
Photograph of Yue Ma

This interview took place on February 26, 2021. This transcript has been edited for publication as a written document and may deviate from the recorded conversation.

Amye McCarther: Yue Ma is the Director for Collections and Research, and has been with the Museum of Chinese in America, or MOCA, for 14 years. Yue is the head of the museum’s collections, library and archives, that had been located at 70 Mulberry Street, and is now at 3 Howard Street. She oversees daily acquisition, preservation, digitization, research and online projects. In addition, Yue assisted with the permanent exhibition, With a Single Step, and in 2014, co-curated the exhibition, Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving. She enjoys being a liaison between the collection donors and the museum. Welcome Yue.

Yue Ma: Thank you.

Metropolitan Archivist: It’s so great to have you here. So MOCA recently celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2020. Congratulations!

Yue Ma: Thank you.

Metropolitan Archivist: That is a great accomplishment. The museum was founded as a community-based organization by historians and artists in 1980. Was there a specific event or events that inspired its creation?

Yue Ma: Yes. Thank you so much for inviting me, and I’m very happy to be here to share a little bit about MOCA and our collections. In the beginning, our museum didn’t call itself a museum, it was called the New York Chinatown Historical Project, and it actually had just two founders who met through Basement Workshop, which was a volunteer-based organization in Chinatown, mostly comprised of young people - professionals, activists and artists who collaborated during their spare time after work or on the weekend to present the voice of the Asian-American and to produce artwork to present what they were thinking at the time. Publications like Bridge Magazine and the Yellow Pearl, were produced during that time at the Basement Workshop.

Our two founders, Charlie Lai and Jack Tchen, met at the Basement Workshop. Charlie had grown up around Chinatown, so they saw a lot of the first-generation residents getting older, and they thought if they didn’t collect their stories, their stories would be gone. So they talked about what they could do, this was around the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, to keep this history, and they created the Chinatown Historical Project. Initially, they only focused on interviewing seniors, but most of the stories were focused on laundry work because most of these seniors worked in the laundry business.

Then Charlie and Jack came up with an exhibition Eight Pounds Livelihood. The eight pounds represented the heavy weight of an iron used in the laundry business. Eight Pounds Livelihood came from the oral history interviews, but during this time, Charlie and Jack also invited two professional photographers, Paul Calhoun and Robert “Bud” Glick, to take pictures of Chinatown. So we have a big collection of their work from Chinatown during the 1970s. I think it’s from 1979–1983, and this collection has been heavily used by researchers who are interested in Chinatown during that time period. So that’s how the museum was created — it was really just one project. They also created a documentary film about it, which is accessible in our collection.

Front of a brochure for Eight Pound Livelihood: Chinese Laundry Workers in the United States, The New York Chinatown History Project’s (now MOCA) first exhibition, 1983
Front of a brochure for Eight Pound Livelihood: Chinese Laundry Workers in the United States, The New York Chinatown History Project’s (now MOCA) first exhibition, 1983
Back of a brochure for Eight Pound Livelihood: Chinese Laundry Workers in the United States, The New York Chinatown History Project’s (now MOCA) first exhibition, 1983
Back of a brochure for Eight Pound Livelihood: Chinese Laundry Workers in the United States, The New York Chinatown History Project’s (now MOCA) first exhibition, 1983

Metropolitan Archivist: That’s so interesting, where a younger generation recognizes that their elders are getting older and want to recuperate that memory before it becomes lost. Have you found that, now that you guys have been, as an organization, around for 40 years, do you see there being waves of this reflective moment where a younger generation will come in and see that? Or do you feel like now it’s just part of your process, that you’re always collecting?

Yue Ma: I think during those years our museum developed from a historical project to a museum, so it changed during that time. First, the project realized it could become a museum after collecting the oral histories, but also, while interviewing the laundry workers, they noticed there were a lot of Chinese businesses in Chinatown that they were losing. There were a lot of Chinese businesses that either moved to another place, or closed, or changed owners. The staff realized they probably could get the business materials, not just the individual’s materials, so another part of our collection is materials from Chinatown businesses after they closed.

And then the other collection was from so-called “bachelor apartments”. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, children and family members couldn’t come to America with the men. So it kind of created that society, only-men without women, the so-called bachelor apartments. But after many years, they were getting older. Some of them passed away without any descendants to clean up their stuff. So our museum staff, at that time it was still the Historical Project, they just noticed people throwing out things on the street after people passed away, or just left their stuff in the apartment, with nobody to help them to clean up. So the museum staff went to the street to collect things or to apartments or to the closed business. We collected a lot of business signs, so now we have a big business sign collection. When the New York Historical Society did the big Chinese-American exhibition, they displayed seven of our signs for their exhibition.

So those are the first kinds of collecting activities we did, and then they realized, “Oh, this is kind of a museum rather than just a historical project” and we changed our name to Chinatown Historical Museum. Then I think some time passed before we changed the name the second time, but the scope was bigger then, and it was called the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. And then once we realized we should only focus on Chinese in America, we narrowed down our scope and we settled on the current name. That happened when we moved and opened the new space at 215 Center Street. Before we opened the current location at 215 Center Street, we all worked at 70 Mulberry, where the fire happened in our department. Once we had 215 Center Street, the 70 Mulberry location became our collections and research center, until the fire.

Metropolitan Archivist: Yeah.

Yue Ma: During those years when we changed our scope, I think the collection also expanded in a different way according to our mission. We did collect a lot of things from other states also, even from Canada and other countries, about the Chinese immigrants in North America. So that’s what’s changed about our mission scope and collection.

Metropolitan Archivist: So it’s interesting now because it starts off at this very hyperlocal, and then kind of expands and now is really talking about, kind of, a larger story of migration, but also now you have multiple generations involved. So it’s a much, sort of… It’s mini stories kind of woven together. That’s interesting.

Yue Ma: Yeah. We even have a collection of a Chinatown resident and of her five generations of materials. So I think her family, they had a very… I think the great grandfather used to think about creating a family history archives, so they kept everything for five generations. Then the family members, before they sold their building, they donated their belongings to us. That was in 2006. So we have a huge family collection of a five generation story that includes individual stories — photographs and family letters, as well as the family businesses — restaurants and general stores.

Metropolitan Archivist: Amazing. That’s fantastic. I’m curious… I mean, do you get genealogical researchers as well, since you’re kind of collecting very broadly now? Or is that, or the materials wouldn’t necessarily relate to that?

Yue Ma: Actually, our research is from all over the world, but there are a lot of students, professors, film makers and authors, but there are a lot of requests from other countries. For example, we got a request from Singapore. They noticed we have a large family letter collection, and they have a family letter collection too, but they noticed that the collection over there was mostly letters immigrants in other countries wrote back to China or Asia, and they would like to see the letters sent back to America, and to match them… to make the story complete. So I think that project sounds very interesting. They looked through our 300 to 500 letters, and will publish a book eventually from the Singapore Nanyang… I think Nanyang University.

Metropolitan Archivist: Amazing.

Yue Ma: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Metropolitan Archivist: Chinatown, like much of New York City, has changed considerably in the intervening decades, and the museum has expanded to multiple locations and made collections available online, as you’ve discussed. Are there other activities at different points in the museum’s history that have directly responded to events in Chinatown?

Yue Ma: Yes, definitely. The two big things were the September 11 collection, we called for submissions right after the incident, and then the OneWorld collection about the COVID-19 pandemic, where we also called for submissions right away. I think these two things immediately reacted to what happened in the world, and were related to Chinatown. We started to collect immediately for those two collections. But during the years we wanted to know what people thought about the changes of Chinatown, so there was an oral history project we did with the help of the Chinatown artists and professionals called Archeology of Change Oral History Project.

Metropolitan Archivist: Oh, I see.

Yue Ma: Yeah. So I think basically, the idea was to point out five major locations that had the biggest changes and to interview people about what happened, or what the location in their memory was in the past compared to now, and what they think about this change. So I think the Archaeology Change is a big topic. A lot of people, especially those who used to live in Chinatown or still live in Chinatown, care about that and also would like to discuss it. The lead artist who collected interviews, starting in 2006, was Tomie Arai, and the other interviewer was Lena Sze. Tomie Arai also did an exhibition at MOCA based on the interviews with Chinatown residents called Portraits of Chinatown.

Metropolitan Archivist: When you think about change locally, do you feel like the work that you’re doing now is in dialogue with areas like Sunset Park or Flushing, where there are also large populations that may or may not pass through what we think of as Chinatown?

Yue Ma: Yeah, that’s a good question. Actually, we did the Wave of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving exhibition in 2014, which was based on our collectioon, around the same time that the New York Historical Society did their big Chinese-American: Inclusion | Exclusion exhibition. We had one section called, “Where Chinatown Ends” where we asked, is Chinatown only in Manhattan? And then definitely, it’s not, is the answer. And we included Flushing, Queens, and all those. We even thought about how wherever we are, it is somehow Chinatown. And we did do some collection work and an exhibition on that. There was another oral history project we did with Brooklyn Historical Society, called Sunset Park: The 8th Avenue Oral History Interviews. In terms of other exhibitions, we also did a Flushing’s Chinatown photography exhibition. So there were works, collections, exhibition programs — all related to broader Chinatown history and stories. Definitely.

Metropolitan Archivist: For many cultural institutions, digital collections have been a vital means of serving in communities while we’ve had to socially isolate, and they use them to support researching reference. But I also think one of the things that we’ve experienced at Archivists Round Table, is that by shifting our programs virtually we’re actually able to reach people in outer boroughs more easily.

Yue Ma: Yes.

Metropolitan Archivist: And so there has been this very interesting shift where there have been challenges, but there are also opportunities. And I was wondering how you feel digital programing and collections has shifted your approach over the course of the pandemic, and whether there were specific challenges or opportunities that surprised you.

Yue Ma: Oh, yes. Yeah, we had a lot of experience during the pandemic with the digital remote work. So actually, our digital work… when I first started in this position we already used PastPerfect, eventhough there were only 200 objects in PastPerfect, we continued to use it. Then I thought it would be good to use PastPerfect Online to publish all our local data online, so our system could be viewed from anywhere. Then I realized there are a lot of collections, and we couldn’t process each single object one by one — it would take forever to do that. So I realized we needed to also use ArchivistToolkit or ArchivesSpace, so we could describe collections from the higher level. Then when people do research they can view our finding aids from a higher level description to get to know what we have, and then go to PastPerfect to see the actual object individually.

So we did work on these two systems to have them talk to each other, and we provide the links so that the researchers can go back and forth between these two systems to indicate both the larger picture of the collection and the details of a single object. So that’s where we were before COVID-19, but before that, we also were using OHMS, the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer. We interviewed a lot of people on different topics, so we had different oral history projects to put online through the OHMS. The Sunset Park Project was one of them.

During COVID-19, right after we closed, we were thinking of what we could do, and the first project we revisited was the OHMS, because it’s easy to access and we already digitized a lot. Also, there were a lot of oral histories conducted digitally via Zoom, so starting with the digital data made it easy. So during the first stage of the pandemic we put about 50 interviews online through OHMS. Then after we set up all those remote systems and got more access, we made these three systems move together: PastPerfect, ArchivesSpace and OHMS. We worked on these three systems all together.

Sometimes we just feel like the public would like to know the story immediately. They want to be educated, to read just a short story or something. So we created a new website for MOCA during the pandemic. In 2019 we wrote the 150th Story to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. So we chose 150 objects in our collection, wrote 150 stories, and we posted them on our new website, and through social media.

Then this year we wrote 40 Stories for the 40th anniversary of our museum. Each year we summarize what happened in the museum to talk about the history of our museum itself. We also put the stories online and on social media. Also during this time, Google Arts and Culture came to us and introduced their system, and eventually we launched three MOCA online exhibitions through Google Arts and Culture, particularly the “Trial by Fire: The Race to Save 200 Years of Chinese American History” to show the fire recovery of our collections. We also worked with the Center for Jewish History on our Emile Bocian photographic collection. So all those online components, besides the professional database systems, function very strongly for the public. I think that’s very important during this time.

Metropolitan Archivist: I did notice that the website, I mean forgive the analogy, but it’s almost like an onion, that there are just layers and layers. The more that you look at it and move around on the site the more that you can see, which was really nice to navigate through. And I like the idea that you guys are using all these different kinds of technologies to meet people where they are in different places online, as well.

Yue Ma: Yeah. We recently launched MOCA’s brand new website, and in it we have MOJO, which is the online journal of MOCA, which collects highlights from every page from our website, providing some convenience for visitors to see the most recent site updates on one page.

Metropolitan Archivist: Your OneWorld COVID-19 collection is a very powerful expression of community-driven responses to the pandemic. From local organizing efforts to artistic creations that convey the breadth of its emotional impact, and the resilience of individuals during this challenging time. This project is both a rebuke of the Coronavirus-fueled attacks that have so wrongly been perpetrated against Chinese-Americans and the Chinese diaspora. While also acting as a beautiful display of the continuum of community during this time of social distancing and isolation. Would you like to share with us a little bit about how this project came about and the future directions you may take it in?

Yue Ma: Yeah. I think this really happened so suddenly to all of us. So first, as a lot of people like us, we have families in China. We have relatives or friends there. We heard of COVID happening in China early in 2020. So everybody got the information and thought about how we could support them. So that’s the mood we were in at the time when the pandemic suddenly hit America. So our first reaction was, “What can we do?” I think that happened in all the Chinese communities — “What can we do?” Because we already had some knowledge from friends, family, relatives in China, we had all learned something. So we asked ourselves what could contribute to American society when America got hit by the COVID virus.

Everybody was asked to stay at home, but we already collected some masks and other supplies. Chinese communities in small towns collected what they had at home, like masks or other supplies to send over to the local hospitals and frontline workers. There were a lot of things happening like that, and we thought we should collect those stories as our first collection.

Also, on the other side, there was a lot of blame towards the Chinese. It increased the anti-Chinese emotions or activities. We think it is also important to collect all of those stories, what you faced during this time too. So those were the two points of focus or concerns we had at the time, while collecting for OneWorld.

But after we sent out the call, we got a lot of responses that not only included these two focuses, but also additional artwork. There are also stories about how the COVID pandemic affected their life and work. All those kinds of topics. Or even just the images of Chinatown, or images of their community, how it now looked different from normal.

So we started to collect all of this, then one day, the Columbia University Oral History department contacted me, I think we did the September 11 oral history project with them, so they recalled that project also, and connected with us to see if we could do another oral history project together. And then together we came up with an idea — we would help them find interviewees and they would use their professional knowledge and student manpower to do the oral histories. Then, we would share the archives in both repositories.

Additionally, we collected oral histories on our own immediately. When people who donated artwork or collections material expressed that they would like to speak with us, we used Zoom to talk to them and collected their oral history. It’s a digital way to bring us together. I think we already did at least 50 or 60 interviews by ourselves.

Metropolitan Archivist: Wow.

Yue Ma: Yeah. During the summer, the summer interns also work together with us. So hopefully we can post those oral history interviews online soon.

Metropolitan Archivist: I’m really struck by how… It’s such important work that you’re doing, just the collecting of the experience as it’s unfolding. And it sounds like it’s not only documenting the history of everyone’s experience but sounds to me, I wonder what you think, that it’s also helping everyone individually process their experience, it sounds like. That you’ve collected 50 or 60 interviews, to me that says that people want to talk to someone and you’re being a supportive place for them to share. So I feel like that’s so valuable and unique for an archive.

Yue Ma: Yes. I think this oral history definitely added a lot of context besides those actual objects or photographs, as this is really a conversation with deeper details. In addition to this, we also did the window exhibition. In response to the pandemic we collected for OneWorld and we wanted to show the OneWorld collection to the public. We did post the story online, but on the other hand, we thought people would still like to see the museum, but they could not get in, as we didn’t open. Then, our curatorial team came up with the idea to install portions of our OneWorld collection in two windows facing Center Street and Lafayette. I think that got a lot of views also.

Metropolitan Archivist: That’s really an ingenious idea. It’s such an… offering to the community, just something at this time… it’s very creative in how you’re reaching everyone. It’s very ingenious.

Yue Ma: Thank you.

Metropolitan Archivist: Our next question is about your collaboration with the Center for Jewish History, but it’s also about the history of activism in Chinatown within the community. MOCA’s digital exhibit, the Unlikely Photojournalist, Emile Bocian, presented in conjunction with the Center for Jewish History, documents the rich social history of Chinatown, from 1974 to 1986. Emile Bocian, son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, was both an outsider to the Chinese community but also an insider through the personal connections he built overtime as he performed this documentary work. Emile had wanted to return in the future to document aspects of the neighborhood that had endured, and the exhibition includes contemporary photographs taken by CJH art director, Shayna Marchese, to realize that vision of Chinatown through time.

As I was looking at the online exhibit, I was struck by the photos of public demonstrations that were documented mostly against social injustices. While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on neighborhoods across the city, there has also been a resurgence of collective action initiatives in the street. So while some things have changed, others have remained the same. I’m wondering if there are other collections at MOCA that especially capture periods in history that strongly speak to what we are experiencing now, and what other legacies of activism in Chinatown inform the present that might not be visible to those outside of the area.

Yue Ma: The first that comes to my mind is photographs that probably belong to the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance collection. During World War II, the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance collected donations and sent them back to China, and they even donated an ambulance to China, and they took a photo of this, which is now in our collection. They also had a fundraising parade in Chinatown. There were Chinese girls, they just stood in line, carrying a very large flag so that people could throw their donations on the flag, then they collected the money and sent it back to China. So my first reaction to your question is this collection. All those photographs and the story… when we discuss what happened during World War II, during that time in China, it was kind of an anti-Japanese war, and how people in America thought about their family left in China. I think about the increased anti-Chinese feeling… it sounds like the same feeling right now in America. How they protected themselves in America, and how they took care of the family back in China, and how they supported them. So they collected the donations and sent an ambulance and other donations back to China, purchased the war bond to support and collected funds even just on the street during the parade.

So this makes me feel like it’s a similar history in my mind, to what is happening right now during the pandemic. There are a lot of collections, actually. Our collection about the activists from the Basement Workshop that I mentioned, where our two founders met, I think a lot of work from the Basement Workshop really reflected how Asian-Americans would like their voices to be heard, to make an effort to be equal to everybody. So I feel like even at the beginning of the museum that’s an Asian-American movement effort.

Metropolitan Archivist: It’s an interesting connection to draw — the community response basically, in a time of crisis. To me what is so striking is just that there are these really strong family ties, and when these things happen that have this global impact that it’s felt on both sides of the ocean. They’re not just located far from each other, those ties are alive and felt. And I think it’s a very striking part of that community and that story, I think.

And I think also, it is becoming more of a universal experience. As families separate for multiple reasons across the board, and we are separated now more so just because of the pandemic. So it’s a… I don’t know. It’s a universal experience.

Yue Ma: Yes.

Metropolitan Archivist: Well that leads a little bit into the question that I had, and I’m really interested to get your take on this. The past year has witnessed a reckoning over racial disparities that have existed in our country since its founding, and this urgent need to reconsider our collective history as one that is more inclusive. And I think that for some institutions, this is somewhat of a new realization that they’re internalizing. But my take from talking to archivists in many different smaller community-based organizations, is that this is work that’s been going on for a long time. That they’ve understood the need to tell these stories for a very long time, and I think that MOCA is an example of that.

The 150 years with the Transcontinental Railroad exhibition, you have digital collections that relate to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Those are painful histories, but ones that we need to look at honestly if we are to understand our past and do better in the future. And I think that part of what that’s pointing to is how exclusionary laws and practices that Chinese-Americans have faced happened even as they were contributing to the very building blocks of our society, as well. And so it sort of highlights the injustice that exists in those histories and how that needs to be right. And I’m just wondering, given this broad moment of reconsidering our histories and thinking about disparities, have you noticed that there is a change in the kind of interests that you’ve received, or that there’s a change in how people are approaching MOCA?

Yue Ma: I think the history, the documents are always there, but they are probably used for different purposes. For example, even with the same collection we will do an exhibition differently in a different time period. I believe people see those exhibitions from different angles because, probably, the audience has already changed, they are broader or cross-generational. For example, we usually talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the “paper sons.” People came here using fake identification called a “paper son.” I think the earliest reason for “paper sons” was the earthquake that destroyed families’ immigration documents in San Francisco. Because of this, people could claim they had more children in China, and then they brought over other people’s kids with fake identities. So more Chinese came here using others’ last names, and that’s why they are called “paper son.”

So we have actually a large collection of “paper sons.” There are a lot of families where they talk about their grandfather, great grandfather using fake identification to come to America. It’s a fact in our history. And families, the later generations, want to know what their real last name could be, or they want to do some genealogy research on their family. But I believe the earlier generations, they may not want to talk about this because they don’t want to reveal their actual fake identification in America.

That makes me think about one collection we have, it’s called Paper Sculptures from the Golden Venture boat. Undocumented people from China took this boat to come to America. There were around 200 people on that boat when it ran aground near Queens. These 200 people were then detained near Pennsylvania. They made paper sculptures using whatever they could get in prison, like notebooks or magazines, to fold them or do papier-mâché to make very beautiful artwork - eagles, a boat or even a birthday cake. They did a lot of different things. But I know there were about three artists in the group who taught everybody how to do this. So they came up with over about 1,000 pieces of this artwork. But we did this exhibition during the 1990s when this happened. That happened in 1993. I think we did the exhibition in 1996. And then we revisited the exhibition recently, and we tried to find those people to interview them and actually, we were refused by the person himself. Sometimes people don’t want to talk about their personal history of being undocumented and illegally coming to America.

But I believe after more years, maybe their descendants or family members can honestly talk about what happened during that time. Even with the “paper son” now I can see the families really want to know what happened in their family. Like what’s the real last name after generations. But the concurrent… I mean the person himself or herself is really concerned about being interviewed somehow. So that makes me feel like the history is there, the documents are there, the materials are there, but people will see it differently during the time.

Metropolitan Archivist: Yeah, and there’s different kinds of risk that you end up having to negotiate over time, too.

Yue Ma: Right, that’s true. You do more research, you dig further into the materials, you probably discover more on the actual materials itself.

Metropolitan Archivist: It sort of underscores how important this commitment on the ongoing collection of this community is because this story will change over time as more materials are brought in, more oral histories are brought in, and will continue to unfold in this way.

Metropolitan Archivist: It’s been a little over a year since fire damaged MOCA’s building on Mulberry Street, in January 2020. From the sound of it the archives, fortunately, seem to have been spared most of the damage, but other collections will require restoration from the water damage. Can you share with us what the recovery process has been like? But especially given the safety precautions necessary during the pandemic, are there ways that other institutions have been able to support MOCA during this process?

Yue Ma: Yeah. Our public relations department followed us all the time, from when the fire happened until today, and has posted about it on social media. They converted this work into an online exhibition via Google Arts & Culture called Trial by Fire. It marks the one year anniversary of the fire at Mulberry. This online exhibition will show you a lot of information about our retrieving and recovering process, and also of our conservation assessment.

But what I would like to say is, right after the fire, it took us about over a month to retrieve the collection. It’s really hard. The building belonged to the city. And after the fire, the building wasn’t considered safe, so nobody was allowed in the building. So we had to work with the city across five or six departments, that all had to ok the contractors they hired to get into the building. So the retrieval process took over a month, but it took only two days to get everything out.

I had to utilize the map we created for the storages and draw information from our memories and other records, to give them directions: This is my first priority, second and third, and hopefully you’ll get all these things for me. But I wasn’t able to get into any of the rooms or even get close to the building. It really exceeded the 48 hours for the best retrieval times in terms of archival conservation perspective. After fire and water damage, you get your things and within 48 hours put them into the freezer for the best result of recovery. That didn’t happen to us. The first retrieval was already one week after the fire. But really, thanks to all those departments. They really helped a lot. I think I got almost all of what I wanted. They really worked really hard, from early morning to very late. One day they got almost everything from a certain room for us. Really productive.

Ten percent of our collection was considered to be in the best condition and brought back to the main museum location and we got immediate help from the volunteer conservators from the Alliance for Response NYC to dry and treat this part of our collection, Meanwhile, professional support also came from DORIS, NYC Department of Records and Information Services, during the retrieval process; there were also over 400 volunteers involved.

The remaining ninety percent of our collection that was retrieved was almost immediately sent to two offsite facilities that have a freezer and a walk-in freeze-dry facility, to help us to dry the collection. But then after that… I mean, the last retrieval happened March 8th, and our museum closed March 12 or March 15, I forgot the exact dates. But it was really the next week that we closed. And we were so fortunat that we got everything out before the city closed down. And fortunately, the two offsite facilities that helped us dry our collection did not completely close. They don’t have too many people working onsite. It’s really the machine running. So our collection was dried, batch by batch during the month and they allowed us to come to check. And during that time I visited the two facilities, one in Pennsylvania the other one in upstate New York, a few times with our appraiser, for the insurance claim and also to assess the conditions of the collection. We also checked the inventory of our work that was with the facility staff and we took photographs.

From April 1st we started rented the space on Howard Street. The space is much bigger than 70 Mulberry. 70 Mulberry is 2,500 square feet, and this space has over 4,000 square feet on two floors. So we renovated the new space. We hired a professional designer to help us design and purchase the smart shelving units. Then, the work finished almost at the same time when everything was dried, and that was in October. So we had the soft opening in October for this new space, and also the window exhibition, and we started to get our collection back in October. But still, it’s a process. During the pandemic, it’s really hard, definitely. So it took two months for us to get everything back. So we got everything back by the end of December.

Right now everything is back in our space, and in December we hired a group of six conservators to do a conservation assessment on the collection. The current process, I think it’s the second or the third month, and we realize the work could last one year to finish the assessment only, and then we will come up with a decision after one year, which part of collection we will have to restore or we can replace by other examples, or whatever we can do. We will come up with solutions for different categories. But that’s what we are currently, right now. So we still work onsite but not every day. It’s in and out, remote and also onsite.

Metropolitan Archivist: It’s such a long process recovering from something like that.

Yue Ma: Right. And in terms of support… Yeah, thank you for asking about this. I think on our website we have a link to support, and where people can make donations. And there are other ways to support. There are certain collections where we would probably need better items to replace the damaged ones with. So definitely, collection donations would also be a help -family history, or an immigration certificate if there are any from the same time period, or otherwise an entirely new donation to add to our current collections. Or just attend some of our online programming, get to know us, become members — that will all help.

We have a lot of educational classes. Bring kids to our classes, watch our online classes. But in terms of conservation, we actually created a page for… this is a new initiative we have — you can sponsor one object to repair it. So it’s like a donation. During the conservation assessment, we had the idea to tell the story of specific objects and then with the assessment, the conservator will examine how much we need to repair this object, then we will post it online. It’s like, “sponsor this object, help us restore it.” We created a page on our website, so I hope people can track that page frequently to sponsor whatever they’d like to help.

Metropolitan Archivist: That’s a very interesting approach. I have to say that I’m amazed that you guys were able to actually get as much done as you have in the past year, given all the obstacles that we’ve been facing as a city, and individually as well. So it’s wonderful to hear that you’ve made so much progress. And I think we definitely want to keep in dialog with you guys so that we can be directing people who may want to support you to your website, and to see how things are going. So thank you for sharing that.

Yue Ma: Thank you.

Metropolitan Archivist: So the celebration of a milestone allows for both reflection and imagination, to take inventory of what has been accomplished and to set our sights on what we hope lies ahead. As you celebrate this 40th anniversary, what is your vision of the future for MOCA?

Yue Ma: Yeah, I think we actually… Just to simplify it, we just really want to create MOCA as a national museum of Chinese in America. I believe we are already almost the largest or one of the largest on the East Coast. Hopefully we can curate our collections and also other program exhibitions that cover the entire country, rather than just the East Coast or Chinatown in New York City. So it’s really a huge national scope for our museum and collection in the near future. Hopefully the museum can expand to be bigger and bigger since our collection space has already almost doubled. Hopefully we can get more new acquisitions from all over the country and fill in the gaps in our collections. That’s my current wish for the near future.

Metropolitan Archivist: It seems like despite some of the setbacks, that you guys are really well positioned to expand. Not just the physical collections, but you have this broadening array of digital collections that would really support that.

I am very impressed by the big vision, and I’m confident you’ll succeed.

Yue Ma: Thank you. Thank you for your support.

Metropolitan Archivist: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak to us.

It’s been really a pleasure speaking with you and learning about MOCA. So thank you so much.

Yue Ma: Thank you.



The Metropolitan Archivist is a forum for archivists in the New York metropolitan area and beyond to publish on local histories and collections, issues impacting the field, new projects undertaken within our professional community, and more.

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Metropolitan Archivist

Metropolitan Archivist

A publication of The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (ART).