You've probably seen an iconic Argus C3 camera
on the big screen without knowing the camera's roots are in Ann Arbor. The Argus Museum
inside the historic Argus building at 525 W. William in Ann Arbor aims to keep the history and legacy of Argus alive. The museum, formerly under the auspices of the Washtenaw County Historical Society
, spun itself off as its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit in late 2022.
The Argus Camera company started in a building on West William that originally housed a furniture-making firm. Later, the International Radio Corporation (IRC) moved in. During the 1930s, IRC's founder wanted to offer a mass-produced camera that could compete with the Leica cameras he'd seen in Europe, says Cheryl Chidester, executive director of the Argus Museum.
The company hired a Belgian engineer to help design the Argus A, "an inexpensive, easy-to-use, almost-indestructible camera," she says.
Chidester often hears stories from former Argus employees, and one story from quality control employees demonstrates just how indestructible the cameras were.
Argus Museum Executive Director Cheryl Chidester.
"I was told by former employees that sometimes they would drop [a camera] from the second floor to the first floor, and it still worked," Chidester says.
The camera was immediately a big seller and is thought to have helped popularize amateur photography, Chidester says.
"We have a display that shows how they sold thousands of these cameras in the first couple of weeks," Chidester says. "There was such a huge demand for something inexpensive and easy to use."
The Argus C was even more popular than the model A, ranking among the best-selling mass-produced cameras of all time.
Argus employee badges on display at the Argus Museum.
The Argus Camera company was operational between 1936 and 1969. The company sold its radio patents to RCA but was "instrumental" in World War II, Chidester says. Argus won military excellence awards for its war efforts in making, among other items, radar equipment for the B-52 bomber and sighting devices for Sherman tanks.
The company was acquired by Sylvania in 1959 and ceased operations 10 years later. Today, the Argus Museum is situated in the company’s original Ann Arbor factory. In addition to the name and ownership changes, the building also underwent a series of renovations and additions.
The museum was established in 1987 when the building opened after an extensive renovation project. It was founded by Ann Arbor-area developer William Martin and O’Neal Construction owner Joe O’Neal, who purchased the building in 1985, knowing its historic significance. They seeded the museum's collection by purchasing a private collection from Don Wallace, a former Argus employee and avid collector of Argus products.
Today, the Argus Museum houses more than 4,800 items including prototypes and rare cameras, projectors, photographic equipment, company records and related items, photographs, and WWII-era military equipment.
Movie posters with Argus cameras on display.
The museum also highlights Argus camera appearances in old films like "The Philadelphia Story" or "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," in which the camera protects the character Colin Creevey from a giant serpent's fatal stare.
"It's such an iconic camera. You look at that and say, 'That's a vintage American camera,'" Chidester says.
The museum hosts shows of photography made with Argus cameras as well as an annual Argus Collectors Group Conference every October, with attendees from all over the world.
The county's historical society made some structural changes in 2022, prompting the society and the museum to part ways. By the end of 2022, the Argus Museum had paperwork ready to establish its own 501(c)(3). Chidester says starting over as a "new" nonprofit can be difficult financially, so the museum is seeking volunteers to organize the collection and help manage events and donations. Those who would like to support the Argus Museum can visit the organization's website to make a donation or become a member
The Argus Museum's hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Parking is free. For more information, visit the museum's website
or call (734) 769-0770.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.
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