“The digital camera is a great invention because it allows us to reminisce. Instantly.”
There’s no going back. The ease, the simplicity, the virtually unlimited amount of photos you can cram onto those tiny little memory cards. Yep, there’s nothing quite like a digital camera. But there are still plenty out there that pine for the ways of yesteryear.
Well maybe not pine, but at least reminisce. And for those that want to reminisce for longer than an instant, there are a few vintage camera museums scattered throughout the world to help them do just that. Virginia, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires all have established vintage camera museums, but there’s a relatively new player in the old-school camera game now – The Camera Museum in Penang, Malaysia.
Opened in 2013, the Camera Museum Penang occupies a two-story pre-war shop house divided into four sections. The gift shop and museum café are free to enter, but the upstairs sections – the main vintage camera display area and Camera Obscura — need an admission ticket. The fee for admission is RM 20 for adults (about $6.30 USD.) Half price for seniors and students.
The first room upstairs is where the money is.
Vintage cameras and flash bulbs from the 1800s up until today are carefully arranged in showcases with small placards with the name of each piece of equipment.
There’s even a (very) small collection of vintage toy cartoon character cameras – Spiderman, Bugs Bunny, and Yogi Bear. Barbie too.
Even a vintage selfie from the 1920s.
You can get hands-on experience with some of the cameras as well.
But most are displayed behind glass.
There are daguerreotypes, box cameras, large and medium format cameras, 35mm cameras, single and twin lens reflex cameras, and even a few digital cameras.
The second room upstairs houses a series of spy cameras and other novelty-type cameras, including this Japanese Machine Gun Camera from World War 2. It was used to train gunners – they could look at their photos after practice to help improve their form.
One of the most interesting displays was of these creepy photos from the 1800s – mothers covered in blankets or curtains holding up their babies. Apparently it was a thing back then in order to keep the kids still during photo sessions so the photographer could maintain focus on the youngsters better. Once I Googled it afterwards, I found plenty more examples, and it even led me to something called post-mortem photography – the peculiar practice of staging photos with the deceased.
There’s also a non-working darkroom to help visitors understand how traditional camera film was developed.
One of the most interesting parts is the wall towards the top floor exit. It depicts famous photographs since the dawn of photography and the story behind each. Some great stories here with some pretty good detail on how each photograph came to be.
And that leads me to the only negative thing about the museum. There was little or no explanation of many of the items on display. After I left the Camera Musuem I read online that there is normally a guide who takes you through the place and explains the displays, shows you how to use the practice cameras, and basically guides you through the entire experience. I had been there for 20 minutes before anyone showed up, so while I did get great detail on the spy room and the Camera Obscura, the rest was a little disappointing.
Being a photography novice, in the absence of a guide or even a brochure explaining the displays, for the most part I had no idea what I was looking at. I’m hoping my experience was the exception rather than the rule.
So is the Penang Camera Museum worth the price of admission? I think so. Especially if you are keen on photography. Just be sure to ask if there is a guide available to get the most out the experience.
The Penang Camera Museum
- Address: 49 Lebuh Muntri, 10200 Penang, Malaysia
- Opening Hours: 9:30 am to 8pm every day
- Price of admission: Adult RM20, Students & Seniors RM10
- Tip: Check Groupon Malaysia for Penang Camera Museum discount coupons – I saw one on there for 45% off the regular price of admission.