HISTORY THROUGH THE LENS

The only free camera museum in the United States resides in Staunton.

Story and photos by Erin Williams

The Camera Heritage Museum has a collection of cameras from multiple different eras that have been donated to the museum from all across the world.

Entering through the double glass doors, visitors are welcomed by towers of cameras dating back to the beginning of the 19th century. Glass cases line the walls and shelves are packed with lenses of all different makes and models. Early explorer Jacques Cousteau’s camera sits just feet away from daguerreotype prints, the first type of photographs. “Hello,” a friendly voice calls from behind the desk at the back of the store. “The tour starts here and it goes all the way around. I’d be happy to answer any of your questions.”

 

Standing at the far corner of Augusta and Beverly streets in Staunton, the Camera Heritage Museum is the only free camera museum open to the public in the United States.

The museum is the work of David Schwartz, who started his private collection 47 years ago. The museum was originally just a camera and photo printing shop, where Schwartz worked and found his love for photography. The museum started out with 2,200 cameras, but has since doubled its collection. Not all of its current 5,000 cameras even fit in the museum, with many packed away in the attic due to the lack of space on the shelves for new additions. “Now and again we get a really exceptional one and then we gotta make room for it,” Schwartz says. “It just gets a little tighter in here.”

Cameras and different items given to the museum as donations come from all around the world. Seeing large, brown boxes outside the glass doors of the museum always makes for an exciting day because Schwartz says he never knows what’s inside. The museum attracts visitors of all ages from across the country, averaging from 80 to 300 visitors a week. Virginia Beach residents Anne and Erhard Kostler chanced upon the museum while taking a vacation through Virginia. Erhard says that his visit to the museum was “a trip back through life through different cameras.”

“To see them again was like seeing old friends,” Erhard says of the cameras that were similar to his first a Leica. The museum’s collection is made up of many different styles and brands of cameras. There are Leicas, Canons, Nikons, Brownies, Hasselblads, Kodaks — one could name a brand of camera and the museum is likely to have it. But one camera in particular stands out.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese surprised the U.S. with an attack on Pearl Harbor. Three cameras were used in the mission — one was shot down into the water and two remained intact. One of those two sits on a top shelf at the Camera Heritage Museum. The Japanese pilot who flew over Pearl Harbor donated it. His granddaughter went to Mary Baldwin College, just blocks from the museum. “He was walking down the street and came in and saw the collection. This was way before we became a museum but he felt I should have the camera,” Schwartz says.

“Do you know what cameras these are?” Schwartz asks, pointing to a tower of small boxy black cameras; Anne and Erhard look over his shoulder. “Oh, they’re Brownies! My first camera was a Brownie,” Anne says. “I still have photos that I took with it.” The museum is filled to the brim with cameras, darkroom timers, lenses and photographs. In hopes of creating a better museum, Schwartz is raising money to purchase the P. Buckley Moss Museum in Waynesboro. The building is owned by the Virginia Tech Foundation but has recently been put up for sale.

The museum has to raise $6.4 million to purchase the building. Schwartz wouldn’t disclose the amount of money currently raised, but he hopes that through donations from visitors and supporters of the museum, the new building will soon be within reach. What once started as a private collection and a small- town camera shop has since developed into a flourishing museum overflowing with the history of film. Schwartz says film isn’t a dying art but a timeless, permanent medium that will last for years to come.

“With photo film, that negative that was shot maybe 100 years ago, I can print it today,” Schwartz says. “We got to know where we came from to know where we’re going.”