JANM Acquires Controversial Allen Eaton Collection


A watercolor of Tule Lake by an unknown artist from the Allen Eaton collection.

A watercolor of Tule Lake by an unknown artist from the Allen Eaton collection.

By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER, Rafu Staff Writer

After a month of public outcry, the controversial Eaton collection — which comprised more than 400 artifacts from the Japanese American concentration camps — has found a home.

CEO of the Japanese American National Museum Dr. Greg Kimura announced Saturday at the JANM Gala Dinner that the museum has acquired the entire collection. Among the objects are paintings by Estelle Peck Ishigo, photographs, and hand-carved wooden bird pins.

Allen Eaton, a politician-turned-folk-arts-advocate, gathered these items for use in his book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, which aimed to humanize incarcerated Japanese Americans, celebrate their artistic skill, and protest the incarceration. When he died, the objects entered the inheritance cycle, going first to Eaton’s daughter, then to her friend, then to the friend’s son, John Ryan.

It was Ryan who consigned the collection with Rago Arts, remaining anonymous until after the original auction, scheduled for April 17, was called off. Although neither Ryan nor Rago violated any laws, their auction was only one among many throughout history that aimed to make a profit from objects that originally belonged to marginalized people.

Kimura’s announcement came at the beginning of a program celebrating actor/activist George Takei, bestowing on him the museum’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. The timing was particularly fitting given that Takei played a large role in taking the Eaton collection off the auction block and ensuring that it would end up with a Japanese American community institution.

As a child, Takei was incarcerated with his family, first at Rohwer, then at Tule Lake. He has been passionate about spreading awareness of the concentration camps, using his fan base and social media following to advocate for social justice.

“I believe that through understanding comes respect, and JANM continues to take major steps forward to increase the public’s understanding of a grievous chapter in American history,” said Takei in JANM’s official announcement.

“All of us can take to heart that our voices were heard and that these items [in the Eaton collection]will be preserved and the people who created them during a very dark period in our history will be honored. The collection will now reside at the preeminent American museum that tells the story of the Japanese American experience.”

See JANM’s official announcement here.




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