The Eaton Collection Arrives at
L.A.’s Japanese American National Museum

©Akiko Ichikawa 2015

Los Angeles, 2015 A four-foot Hello Kitty in a kimono, a collaboration between the Japanese American National Museum and Sanrio, greeted
guests to the product survey and exhibition of the 40-year-old icon of cute at the downtown museum earlier this year. The show broke the institution’s attendance records, surpassing numbers for its 2014 photography show of contemporary Japanese tattoos (photographed by Akiko Ichikawa)

The Allen H. Eaton collection of artifacts and artwork made and collected by people of Japanese descent during WWII while under incarceration without trial in the US, the auction for which was halted in May under the work of a myriad of people, organizations, and a Change.org petition, arrived in June at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in less than ideal condition. Museum trustee, ex-Congressman, and former Secretary of Transportation under George W. Bush Norman Mineta described the objects “as suspected” as necessitating “significant conservation”. This despite the fact that John Ryan, the Tri-State-based consigner and previous owner of the objects, assured the public via the New York Times that his family had “always loved the collection,” that they'd “taken care of” the objects, and that they had “tried to be good stewards of this material and protect it over the years.”

Amache, CO, April 24, 1943 Elementary school children landscaping the grounds in front of their barracks school at Granada incarceration camp (photographed by Joe McClelland for the War Relocation Authority, courtesy the National Archives [Archives Identifier 539391]) A print of the photo is part of the Eaton collection, previously in the Rago Great Estates auction this spring before being halted by activists and George Takei.

The sale of the collection to JANM in May was not without controversy. After the auction was stopped, the 23-year-old museum broke from the consortium it had joined with institutions like the Smithsonian, the National Park Service Office of Cultural Services, and the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation to negotiate for the objects together, making a separate deal with Ryan and Rago auction house to acquire the collection. The sale occurred against a backdrop of other, more general interest US institutions fielding interest in the collection, and with the help of an auctioneer whom museum president and CEO Greg Kimura described to me as “a person of good will.” Many in the community, however, felt betrayed, having been informed of the transaction after it had taken place. Activism around the auction shifted to address the museum and Kimura apologized for the manner in which the deal was made. JANM trustees board member Mineta was also promoted to chair of the board and seems to have helped eased communal tensions around the issues of keeping a White person’s collection intact and spreading credit for stopping the auction, which involved work by countless people across the country, efforts spearheaded by sansei women like Dr. Satsuki Ina, Nancy Russell, and Barbara Takei, who is unrelated to George.