Home name plate from a US internment camp during World War II (all images courtesy the Japanese American National Museum unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — Almost three years have elapsed since around 450 objects collected from World War II Japanese internment camps in the US were controversially put up for auction. Sparking debates about the ethics of selling artifacts of oppression for commercial gain, Japanese American activists at the time successfully applied pressure on the seller of the Allen Hendershott Eaton collection to arrange for a sale that would place the objects under the stewardship of a museum or foundation. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles ultimately acquired the items that are now on display in Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection.

Shell craft made of small shells found in dry river beds at internment camps

The original owner of the collection, Allen Hendershott Eaton, was a champion of folk arts and advocate of Japanese internees during the war. Internees had gifted the objects to Eaton in the hopes that they would be preserved and used for educational purposes. Eaton, who died in 1962, willed the collection to his daughter Martha Eaton, who in turn passed on the items upon her death in 1990 to Thomas Ryan, the executor of her estate. After Ryan’s passing in 2008, the collection ended up in the possession of his son John Ryan, who then put up the items for auction in 2015. Public pressure led to the eventual sale of the collection to the Japanese American Museum for an undisclosed amount.

An example of a wooden bird pin commonly made at internment camps at Poston and Gila River, Arizona

Contested Histories features a comprehensive display of physical objects and digital reproductions, capturing the varied and prodigious creative output of Japanese Americans forcibly interned at remote camps across the country. While the items on display are often expertly crafted and beautiful, the museum underscores the tragic context of their making. Masterfully finished furniture and wood carvings, for example, came from salvaged materials used to improve and customize otherwise cold and austere camp environments. Intricately detailed craft objects like flower baskets formed from seashells found in dry river beds in California and Utah speak to not only the resourcefulness of camp inmates, but also the resources taken away and withheld from Japanese Americans by the US government.

Among the collection’s highlights are decorative bird pins, commonly made by camp residents in Arizona, and wooden signs used to uniquely identify one family’s barrack from another. The carved name plates indicate how the inmates built a sense of pride and ownership of their community. Their daily life and traditions form the subject of several watercolors by known and unnamed artists who helped document what work, recreation, and social life looked like in the camps. What is also apparent through the collection’s photographs, which depict arts education classes and craft festivals, is the degree to which camp residents looked to the arts for intentional community-building.

Wood carving from the Eaton Collection

Classes for home decorative arts proved highly popular with internees who sought to learn new skills, convene with neighbors, and add some beauty to their surroundings. While internment camps might have had several professional artists or master calligraphers among their ranks, a large number of works in the museum exhibit come from anonymous residents who developed their craft as amateurs or students of education programs developed by the community. As an ongoing project, the museum seeks to identify some of the unnamed creators or subjects of these works by opening up its collection of images and objects to to the public. Museum guests or visitors to the online gallery are encouraged to leave comments and help with the identification of individuals or attribution of works.

The attempted auction of the Allen Hendershott Eaton collection opened up decades-long wounds suffered by surviving internees and their families as the sale’s intent resembled the logic that once took away the livelihood of thousands of Japanese Americans to the benefit of white Americans. That the collection now belongs to a museum may feel like a win-win, but it still does not adequately resolve the issue of an individual with no ties to the history of Japanese internment camps inheriting the collection and making a profit from its sale to the museum. The story of these objects, from their creation in Japanese internment camps to their acquisition by the Japanese American National Museum, captures what is both remarkable and ugly about the arts — its power to bring dignity and joy to unjust environments and its exploitation by the market.

Watercolor painting of Japanese program at the mess hall in Heart Mountain, Wyoming

Art exhibit prepared by elementary school students for the Arts and Crafts Festival at Granada War Relocation Center (Camp Amache, Colorado)

A resident of Jerome Relocation Center (Arkansas) creates flowers made of tissue paper at an adult education class

Installation view of Contested Histories at the Japanese American National Museum (image by author)

Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection continues at the Japanese American National Museum (100 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles) through April 8.

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Abe Ahn

Abe is a writer based in Los Angeles.