On a recent trip through Virginia, I stumbled across a gem of a museum tucked away in historic downtown Staunton, VA. I had been browsing brochures of local attractions on a stand in the lobby of my hotel and spotted a photo of a vintage view camera. The brochure was for the Camera Heritage Museum. The non-profit museum bills itself as the largest camera museum on the East Coast. It wasn’t far from my hotel, so I decided to visit, not knowing what to expect.
I walked into what obviously had once been a camera store jam-packed with cameras of all shapes, sizes and vintages. There was a gentleman sitting behind a counter in the back, busy doing some maintenance on a camera. He looked up briefly, said hello, and went back to his work while I browsed through the impressive collection. I saw everything from miniature spy cameras to large format portrait view cameras.
I recognized some cameras that I had used in my early days in photography including a Crown Graphic 4×5 press camera, a Graphic View (first monorail view camera design), several early polaroid cameras, a 16 mm Minox and many others.
After a few minutes of browsing, I asked the man behind the counter a few questions about some cameras that I recognized. When I showed genuine interest in the cameras on display, he stepped out and started describing the history, significance and stories related to many of the items on display. His name was David Schwartz, and he is the curator of the museum. He’s a wealth of information. As more people entered the museum, he recounted some of the same stories several times over, each time with the enthusiasm of someone that clearly loved cameras and the history of photography.
The collection includes vintage view cameras, military cameras, spy cameras, aerial cameras, stereo cameras, underwater cameras, Kodak Brownies, Hasselblads, Leicas, Voigtlanders, Nikons, and some truly unique cameras including a 40″ long baseball camera with lever activated focus stops preset for the distance to each of the bases on the diamond.
David and I talked about some of the stereo cameras on display and I told him that as a medical photographer I regularly take stereo photos of human retinas. He nodded and directed me to a case which held a collection of Topcon 35mm cameras including a body from a vintage Topcon fundus camera.
When I explained a little bit more about fundus photography, he listened intently and I can imagine that he’ll include some of what I told him about this equipment in explanations to future museum visitors.
The venue for this museum is a little quirky, but it houses a serious collection of over 2000 cameras, photos and accessories. A unique feature is the fact that it is an open and accessible to the public, rather than a private collection. The museum also has an online presence. Their website contains a wealth of information on the history of photographic equipment, especially the online gallery of some of the many cameras in their collection. It’s a great resource for history buffs and vintage camera enthusiasts.
The museum can be found at the old Camera and Palette store at 1 West Beverley Street in Staunton, VA. If you are travelling through the area, it is definitely worth a visit. Better yet, if you have some old film cameras collecting dust in a closet you might want to consider contributing to the collection by donating them to the museum. They are always looking for cameras, photos and accessories with historic significance.