The controversial collection of more than 400 arts and crafts items made by Japanese Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II and collected in 1945 by Allen Hendershott Eaton, the "dean of American crafts," has been acquired by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles.
April’s scheduled auction of the private collection at Rago Arts and Auction Center was met with heated outcry by many in the Japanese-American community who considered a public auction of such personal items yet another undignified betrayal of their families and history. With only two days to spare, and a potential Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation injunction, the auction was finally halted after the intervention of Asian-American actor and activist George Takei, who agreed to act as intermediary.
“The museum had always been quietly working behind the scenes to support the community’s efforts to try to get the artifacts,” JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura told NBC News. “When it became clear the environment had been poisoned [by the controversy], the museum had to take a principal role. The big fear was that those artifacts might go to a university or an encyclopedic institution without a direct tie to the [Japanese-American] community.”
The collection is significant because Eaton’s 1952 book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps,” was the first study of the arts and crafts of the Japanese American internment, as well as one of the first books to examine life in the camps. Working with photographers in the camps, Eaton documented how internees created tools and art with scrap lumber, repurposed metal, and found materials like tree roots and onion sack string. The many types of artwork collected included furniture, handicrafts like carved name plates and small boxes, paintings, sculptures, carvings, calligraphy, and photography.
Describing the internment as “a wartime mistake” and “the most complete betrayal, in one act, of civil liberties and democratic traditions in our history,” Eaton was impressed with how the internees “brought beauty into their lives…how they turned to varied arts to help them face with dignity and strength the strange uncertain life before them.”
Noting JANM’s mission, capacity to care for the collection, capacity to use the collection and make it available to scholars, and experience working with collections of historic sensitivity, Rago Arts and Auction Center Managing Partner Miriam Tucker told NBCNews, “It’s truly fitting that this material will reside in perpetuity at an institution dedicated to sharing the Japanese American experience and based on the West Coast, the site of the evacuation.”
“Some of the pieces are in the museum already,” Kimura said. The museum is also beginning to plan traveling exhibitions, as well as loans to Japanese American (JA) institutions, “and frankly to non-JA institutions, too, since this collection has gained such notoriety.”
The announcement was made during JANM’s annual gala, where Takei, who is also Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Trustees, was awarded the museum’s Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service. “It was the most Hollywood gala the museum has ever had,” said Kimura, featuring personal testimonials from people who have worked with Takei “not only from the JA community but from his lifetime of service for civil rights.”