At Chinatown’s Edge, Museum Doubles Visitors

A sign reading "SoHo Retail" advertises available space on Lafayette St., across from the new location of the Museum of Chinese in America. The museum's new Maya Lin-designed building straddling Chinatown and SoHo has brought a larger and more diverse audience than did its old one-room location on Mulberry St.

A sign reading "SoHo Retail" advertises available space on Lafayette St., across from the new location of the Museum of Chinese in America. The museum's new Maya Lin-designed building straddling Chinatown and SoHo has brought a larger and more diverse audience than did its old one-room location on Mulberry St.

BY SUSIE POPPICK

After a month of working down the street from the relocated Museum of Chinese in America, software engineer Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock succumbed to curiosity.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, he pushed open the museum’s back door on Lafayette Street, just yards from his office. He was immediately stopped by a guard, who sent Bergson-Shilcock around to the main entrance on Centre Street.

The distance was barely a block, but the significance was much deeper. Centre Street has long been considered part of traditional Chinatown. Lafayette Street is associated with SoHo, a trendier, more diverse neighborhood.

Drawing from both was part of the strategy when officials decided to move from the museum’s previous 30-year home on Mulberry Street, in the heart of Chinatown. And that tactic might be paying off.

In the month after it reopened in a Maya Lin-designed 14,000 square-foot space on the border of the two neighborhoods, the museum drew more than 5,000 visitors, more than doubling its typical monthly attendance. Officials partly attribute the spike to newcomers like Bergson-Shilcock.

“Chinatown is new to me, though I hope to start spending more time here,” he said. “I usually hang out in the West Village and the meatpacking district.”

By contrast, the museum normally attracted about 20,000 visitors in a peak year at its old location on Mulberry Street, said museum director Alice Mong.

“Educating a more diverse audience was definitely one of our goals,” Mong said. “The new location and larger space allows us to tell more stories to more people. It’s part of our larger goal of becoming more of a national museum.”

Mong said that while the museum’s original core exhibit was more locally focused, with emphasis on the stories of Chinese-Americans from New York’s Chinatown, the museum hopes to reflect the experiences of Chinese people who settled in regions all over the country — with its newly expanded exhibit.

Despite the increase in visitors, some critics say the museum’s move represents a trend that is eroding the traditions of Chinatown.

“The location and new minimalist design may appeal to younger Chinese-Americans, but older Chinese-Americans with stronger immigrant roots may see this as too much of a departure from tradition … too much American and not enough Chinese,” said photographer and Chinatown street historian Corky Lee.

Hunter College professor and Chinatown expert Peter Kwong said the museum’s move represents one of many examples of how real estate pressures and rising prices in Chinatown have gentrified the neighborhood.

“It wouldn’t have been possible for the museum to find a space that large within the central bounds of traditional Chinatown,” Kwong said.

Vistor Ian Schatzberg, a web designer originally from California, said he appreciated the expanded museum’s ability to highlight the Chinese experience in other U.S. regions.

“The part about the immigration center on Angel Island was really fascinating to me,” Schatzberg said, referring to a part of the exhibit that discussed and displayed photos of early 20th-century Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island, near San Francisco, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Schatzberg, like Bergson-Shilcock, was also drawn into the museum as a passerby, after noticing large signs on the building advertising the museum’s reopening.

Some visitors said the museum could still do more to reach a wider audience of Chinese Americans.

Lan Zhang and her husband, Michael Daly, who became museum members at the September grand opening party, said they love the chronological narratives of the museum’s core exhibit. But Zhang, who immigrated to the United States from Guizhou province in 1993, suggested that in order to truly revamp for its new location and larger, more diverse audience, the museum ought to include a wider set of oral histories, artifacts, and photos documenting the experience of more recent Chinese immigrants.

“This is a good start, but they could do more with the space,” Zhang said. “There really is not enough about immigrants after the 1980s …  A few decades have changed the experience of being Chinese in America dramatically.”

Though the core exhibit does focus on earlier immigrants, Mong said, the museum hopes to rotate some of the personal stories and life histories included in the chronology and include ongoing submissions of documents and artifacts from the public. For example, the museum is currently considering a new submission showing the experience of Chinese families and individuals in Florida.

Zhang, whose two daughters were born in the United States, said she was drawn to visit by a personal connection, but that she hoped to return to see a broader reflection of immigrant experiences.

“Seeing how Chinese-Americans have struggled in the past, I know my children are very lucky to be born at the right time,” she said. “The museum does a good job of showing that, but I … and probably other people will more likely keep coming back if they expand more and keep adding.”

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