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National Museum of American History Presents “Cameras before Digital”

September 22, 2009

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will display 22 cameras in a special case focusing on the technological progress made from the camera’s invention in 1839 to the advent of digital photography. The exhibit will be open from Oct. 28 through June 2010.

Featured items include digital, amateur and professional camera models that document the broadest range of the museum’s photo-history collections, from daguerreotype and view cameras to 20th-century military, aerial, digital and promotional models.

"This new exhibition of camera equipment highlights the depth of our Photographic History Collection from early 19th-century models to today’s digital age,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “The display allows us to share this internationally known collection with the public.”

The centerpiece of the showcase is the 1858 painting, “The Magic Box,” by Belgian artist Camille Venneman, which depicts an itinerant photographer taking a photo of a subject sitting outside of a cottage among village onlookers. The painting serves as an inviting reference point for the exhibit that includes an original Kodak camera, a Leica 35 mm camera, a daguerreotype camera and a camera used in World War I for aerial photography.

In addition, a one-day scholarly symposium Nov. 8, “Experiments in 19th-Century Color Photography,” will bring together national and international specialists to present new scholarship on the history of early experiments in color photography in the 19th century. Scheduled presenters include Michelle Delaney, curator of the Photographic History Collection at the museum; Dusan Stulik, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute; Grant Romer, a senior conservator at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House; Kelly Wright, adjunct professor and doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati; and François Brunet, professor of art history and literature at the University of Paris. The symposium is free and open to the public.

The museum’s Photographic History Collection includes rare and unique examples of equipment and popular camera models related to the history of the science, technology and art of photography. It is the oldest collection of photography and cameras in an American museum, and it holds more than 10,000 items significant to amateur and professional photography, as well as the varied formats and processes of photography used in the United States and throughout the world.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. After a two-year renovation and a dramatic transformation, the museum shines new light on American history, both in Washington and online.

To learn more about the museum, check For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).