On Sunday, JANM opened Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, a special display of art and craft objects created by Japanese Americans during their World War II incarceration in American concentration camps. These are the same artifacts that dedicated Japanese American community leaders and activists saved from a controversial attempt at a public auction in 2015. The collection now resides at JANM for safekeeping, and has been conserved, photographed, and catalogued with key support from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program.
It’s a thrilling experience to examine the display, which has been meticulously laid out in the museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC). The entire collection consists of over 450 pieces, most of which are historic photographs—copies of these photographs are collected in a series of thick binders labeled by location. All of the three-dimensional objects, which include wood carvings, jewelry, and pins, along with most of the original two-dimensional objects, such as paintings and watercolors, are on display. Some that were too fragile for display, such as the calligraphic scrolls, appear in facsimile form.
The first thing one notices when exploring the collection is the exquisitely high quality of the craftsmanship that went into these artifacts. The carved wood panels as well as the watercolors, both of which depict classical scenes from nature, rival items seen in art galleries and expensive antique stores. The second realization that occurs is how resourceful and creative these prisoners were while enduring remote and rugged conditions; the beautifully carved furniture and nameplates, fashioned out of scrap and scavenged wood, added personal and homey touches to otherwise bare-bones camp barracks.
Very little is known about the individual items in the collection. Who made it? Which camp did it come out of? Where are the creators today? A case full of rings and pendants made from semi-precious stones brings up the question, where did these stones come from? Eaton, author of the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, acquired much of this collection from inmates who passed them on when they learned he was working on the book. Now, the questions they pose are up to us to answer.
Contested Histories exists in large part as a fact-finding mission: the public, particularly camp survivors and their families, are invited to review its contents and assist our staff in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Forms are provided as part of the exhibition for interested parties to write down what they know. After its exhibition at JANM, the display will go on tour to diverse locations and venues, including museums and community spaces across the country, where it is hoped that more people with connections to the artifacts will come forward and share their stories.
Even if you are not a camp survivor, the Eaton Collection is eminently worth seeing as a testament to the ongoing resilience and creativity of the human spirit, even during the bleakest of times. For those who may not be able to see the collection in person, you can always visit our Flickr page of comprehensive, high-quality photographs (taken prior to conservation), where visitors can share information via the comment field beneath each image.