Museum of Chinese in America

Founded in 1980, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.  The greatly expanded MOCA at 215 Centre Street is a national home for the precious narratives of diverse Chinese American communities, and strives to be a model among interactive museums. After more than 20 years of collecting artifacts, archival and library materials, we are proud to be stewards of one of the most important national archives of materials about Chinese life in America. From rare papers to priceless artifacts, we hold many unusual and unique items indispensable for understanding this contemporary history.

Internship Spring 2011

Catherine Falzone: Setting up an institutional archive.

At the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), I have been helping to plan and implement an institutional archives.  The museum goes back to 1980 when Jack Tchen, Charlie Lai, and a group of neighborhood artists and activists began a project to salvage artifacts that would be evidence of the history of Manhattan’s Chinatown.  While the museum today has not forsaken its early commitment to the neighborhood, it has expanded its reach to encompass the diverse stories of Chinese and Chinese-American people all over the United States.

With over 30 years of existence in some form, MOCA found that it had a massive cache of documents and objects relating to the history of the museum.  The Collections Manager, Yue Ma, decided that it was important to maintain these valuable records to understand the museum’s journey and the development of Chinatown.  It would also help the museum to make better decisions based on historical precedents (and save space in the library!).

With Yue’s guidance, I worked on two related aspects of the institutional archives: the backlog and the records retention schedule they would use in the future to add to the archives.  Before I did anything else, I read up on the museum archives field and MOCA’s collections policy.  I also met with the managers of museum archives at the Brooklyn Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Newark Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and the Tenement Museum to see how other institutions manage their records.

After I felt that I had a good understanding of the field, I began to draft documents for MOCA.  I wrote a mission statement and collections policy for the archives, a processing plan for the Collections Department or a future archivist, and guidelines for staff to transfer their records.  I also updated MOCA’s records retention guide and the worksheet that staff must fill out when adding their records to the archive.  In order to familiarize staff with archival practices and what would be expected of them, I gave a PowerPoint presentation at a staff meeting.

We quickly realized that the records retention schedule we already had was insufficient to cover all the record types that were being created at the museum.  To figure out what each staff member produced and to help them become more familiar with the institutional archives program, Yue and I met with each person individually and I updated the records retention schedule accordingly.

From my time at MOCA, I learned that an institutional archives is a huge undertaking that probably needs a staff member devoted full-time to processing.  To that end, I researched grants that MOCA could use to hire a temporary project archivist.  This person would process the boxes and boxes of records, create finding aids, and input data into archival software.  I also learned a lot about the structure of the organization from meeting with all the staff members—I could really see now how each person’s function fits into the museum as a whole.  Probably the most valuable aspect of the internship was getting the experience of designing and following through on a project, mostly independently.  My supervisor was kind enough to give me a lot of freedom and I felt like I actually made a useful contribution to the museum.

Image: Gobetz, Wally. “NYC – Chinatown: Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA).” 23 Dec 2006. Online image. Flickr. 05 May 2011 <http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/331531471/>.

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