An Exclusive Look at Maya Lin’s New Museum of Chinese in America

New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), an institution devoted to chronicling the history of the Chinese diaspora in the US and broadening the narrative of American history, has unveiled the design of a new, $ 118 million building on the site of its old headquarters.

The news comes at a moment when racially motivated attacks against people of Asian descent are on the rise across the US “There’s so much hurt with groups in Chinatown and in the Asian-American community,” says the museum’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach. “We know that this is a space where we can heal, where we can breathe and dream, and where 300,000 people a year will come and visit.”

The new building, Lin says, is designed “to be an open, friendly, warm, welcoming place for all people.” The museum plans to close in late 2023 for construction and open its new building in 2025.

The MOCA was founded in 1980 as the “New York Chinatown History Project,” occupying four rooms in a building on Mulberry Street. In 2009 the institution, by then renamed MOCA, moved to a leased, 14,000-square-foot location on Center Street, in a space Lin designed for the institution pro bono. “It was rented for a 15-year lease,” Maasbach says. “The rent is about $ 600,000 a year.” (MOCA kept its Mulberry Street space, turning it into a storage archive.)

Almost as soon as the museum opened its new location, its board of directors began to plan for the next step. “It was very clear that my mandate was the need for a permanent home,” says Maasbach, who became the president of MOCA in 2015. “Some people said, ‘I do not want to support MOCA because it’s a rental,'” she explains. “So the irony is that MOCA was renting this space for a very pretty penny, and it was not going over well with Chinese-American donors who were saying, ‘Wait, I’m giving to something that may not exist in the future? ‘”

And so she began to apply for grants to pay for a permanent building. In 2016 and 2017 combined, the city awarded MOCA $ 825,000 — far less than the museum had asked for. The next year MOCA applied again. “It was a ton of work, massively daunting, but we did the whole thing,” Maasbach says. That year it was allocated $ 2.3 million, and the next year, when $ 6.3 million was awarded, MOCA’s ambitions finally began to seem viable. In 2020, just $ 100,000 was donated, but last year, MOCA finally sealed the deal in the form of an almost $ 31 million pledge from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

This total of a bit more than $ 40.3 million from the Department of Cultural Affairs will go toward buying MOCA’s building from its existing landlord for $ 50 million. “That money that’s allocated to us is not sitting in anyone’s bank account, and certainly not a MOCA bank account,” Maasbach says. “The money goes directly to the seller.”

Including the money from the city, MOCA has raised $ 66 million to date, leaving another $ 62 million to raise. (The building, including the purchase price of the existing structure, costs $ 118 million; Maasbach wants to bring in $ 10 million for an endowment.)

Lin, who’s known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the Wave Field at the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York, was brought on to helm the project about three years ago. Applebaum, who recently redesigned the Hall of Gems at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, was added to the team soon after.

Their subsequent nine-story building design has a facade based on a tangram puzzle and “is a vertical, integrated museum that flows very much,” Lin says.

Visitors will enter a double-height lobby, which contains a ticket desk, museum shop, and tea room. A large staircase brings visitors to the museum’s genealogy center on the second floor, which will allow them to dive into photographs and oral histories from the Chinese diaspora.

“It’s positioned as a cultural custodian for the collections that were made up of what Chinese Americans carried with them when they first arrived,” Applebaum says. “These were not only things, but ideas and values ​​and deeply rooted customs and practices that were extremely diverse.”

The third and fourth floors will contain MOCA’s permanent collection, and a double-height gallery on the fifth floor will contain a temporary exhibition space. “There are worlds within worlds of understanding Chinatown through time and place,” Applebaum says, “but also, understanding how Chinese Americans have increasingly become more present in media and culture, and also the darker stories of anti-Chinese prejudice.”

The rest of the fifth floor will have museum offices, and the rest of the sixth floor will have classrooms. A massive wall, dubbed the “memory core” by the designers, spans five floors in the building’s core atrium and will serve as a display for the full range of the museum’s collection.

“There’s a dedication to making it a living institution, which is spurred by this juxtaposition of objects and media, and comments that are also meditations on time, memory, and place,” Applebaum says. This collection, he continues, “will play against the backdrop of American history, and American policy, and oftentimes the contradictions within the American idea.”

The seventh floor will have an event space that opens onto a terrace filled with trees and plants, and on the eighth floor a double-height theater will overlook the city. “We have this great south-facing view,” Lin says, “and the theater cantilevers out.”

The museum has had its share of hurdles. Just before Covid-19 took hold in January 2020, a fire damaged the Mulberry Street building where the museum’s archive of 85,000 artifacts was stored. Much of the collection was salvaged and is currently undergoing conservation.

People protested the museum, arguing that the money should go to Chinatown’s struggling businesses instead. “There’s some people out there saying that [the money] should be divided among the businesses in Chinatown, ”Maasbach says. “That’s not the way it works: We never see it or touch it or smell it — it goes straight to the building’s seller.” The notion that the museum somehow sold out its community, she continues, “is a great story, but it’s completely wrong.”

Within that context, and particularly in conjunction with the recent spate of attacks on people of Asian descent, MOCA’s organizers feel a particular urgency to create a building to serve the community’s diverse, and growing, constituencies.

“What I’m thinking is, if people learn about this history, and contributions, and understand the diaspora, we can change perceptions,” Lin says. “But if you design defensively, you’re almost setting yourself up. So I’m trying to create a welcoming beacon for the community. ”

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