Historic Downtown Campbell: Part 1 of 2. Stay tuned for the Ainsley House visit next time!
The Campbell Historical Museum is a surprising little gem located in the heart of Downtown Campbell. Although we both grew up in this area and even lived in Campbell briefly, we’d somehow never been here. It was definitely worth the visit. We had no idea the City of Campbell had been so important to the history of this valley!
In a Nutshell
This unimposing little building was actually the first city-owned building when Campbell was incorporated as a city back in 1952. It was the fire station, police station, and city hall — all at once! As the city grew, naturally its services spread out. By 1983, the main services had moved elsewhere, and this building became the Campbell Historical Museum.
The museum includes a variety of interactive stations, video segments, timelines, and artifacts to connect the valley’s history to today. There are hands-on opportunities and well-written plaques for children and adults to engage with the subject matter in their own ways.
The details of their current exhibits are on this page. You’ll learn about the evolution “from canneries to computers,” tracing Campbell’s history from its origins in orchards and canned fruit to its role in Silicon Valley today and putting it in context with national and world historical events at the time. Many important innovations happened here long before the microprocessor was invented. Did you know President Roosevelt even came to visit once?
Note: The museum and the Ainsley House are “sister museums” to each other; both are technically independent so you can visit either or both. We highly recommend starting here at the Campbell Historical Museum and then visiting the Ainsley House. The house will make much more sense if you have the context offered in the museum first.
This museum is located at 51 N. Central Ave. in Campbell, on the corner of N. Central and Civic Center Dr. It’s kitty-corner from the Campbell Public Library and one block over from the main downtown shopping and restaurant district on Campbell Ave. If you’re coming from farther away, it’s fairly close to the Hamilton Ave. exit from Hwy 17.
Parking is always tight in Downtown Campbell. There is a small lot connected to the museum, but you enter it from the other side of the block: turn on N. 1st Street and go in the driveway behind Recycle Bookstore West and Sorelle Salon & Spa. Take the first left inside the parking lot (between the two tiny fences into the second half of the lot) and then turn right to get closer to the museum. The museum is the tall unmarked building at the end of the lot. Park in any unmarked slot. (The first slots you see will be reserved for the bookstore or salon, so be careful. Go deeper into the lot to look for 2-hour parking that’s not restricted to a particular store or reserved for staff.)
There is also some on-street metered parking on Civic Center Dr. If you don’t mind walking, you can park elsewhere in town and walk in. (Just be respectful of time limits anywhere you park, because Campbell does mean business in their traffic enforcement.)
Although the address and front sign say N. Central Avenue, the entrance is actually accessed from this parking lot, so walk around the building to the back if your GPS takes you to the official front on N. Central.
Downtown Campbell is very bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, so if you prefer, you can always choose to bike or walk here to avoid the parking drama altogether.
Thankfully this historical building has been upgraded with modern HVAC, so you can enjoy this little museum anytime of year.
When we visited (summer 2019), the museum admission was just $2 for anyone age 7+. If you want a joint ticket for the museum + the Ainsley House, it essentially saves you $1 over buying the two admissions separately. (We didn’t get the joint ticket, but did happen to find a $1 off coupon on an Ainsley House flyer, so it worked out the same.) The joint ticket does not have to be used on the same day.
If you want unlimited access to the museum and the Ainsley House, a quarterly newsletter, gift shop discounts, and free or discounted admission to museum events, memberships are available for $35 per person. Expanded benefits are available with fancier levels of membership.
Both this museum and the Ainsley House are part of the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) Association. This means you can get free or discounted admission to these and many other museums around the continent if you have a membership at one of them. You can search the full list here.
Length of Time
Given the relatively small size of this museum, it’s mind-boggling to think of it once housing the fire department, police department, and city government! The museum will take you about 1-2 hours.
If you’re doing both in one day, plan for the Ainsley House to take an additional 1-2 hours. You can ask the volunteers at the museum desk what time the next Ainsley House tour leaves so you can plan accordingly. If possible, do the full museum before going to Ainsley House.
Physically, the museum was spacious enough and flat enough to navigate easily with the wheelchair. However, most of the displays were surprisingly high up on the walls, so it was tricky to read some of them comfortably from a seated height.
Vision & Hearing
There were more hands-on and audio elements here than at most museums, so someone with limited vision would be able to interact quite a bit. For example, there were plastic fruits on Velcro dots to be “picked” off the “orchard” trees, rubber fruits to be “packed” into the tin cans, and a guessing game with food scents inside metal shakers. There were also narrated video clips and an audio recording of someone reading President Roosevelt’s speech, plus an interactive play space with pretend foods. Unfortunately there is no braille or audio tour of the other material, so a companion would still have to read the text of the main plaques out loud.
The video and audio clips had subtitles, so someone with a hearing impairment would be able to participate fully here. There’s little to no background noise to interfere with hearing aids on a regular day. (I’d imagine if an entire class were here for a field trip, that might change.)
This was a delightfully calm museum in terms of sensory content. The lighting was normal, the background noise was minimal, and that scent game mentioned above was not noticeable unless you held the shakers to your nose. The displays were visually a little busy in places, but not overwhelmingly so. Particularly for the level of interaction it offered, I found this to be one of the more sensory-friendly museums we’ve visited.
There’s no food or drink allowed inside the museum, but there are picnic areas available outside. Of course the entire restaurant district in Downtown Campbell is also only a block away!
Would we go back?
Sure! We both learned a ton about the legacy of a town that we’d honestly always thought of as just a cute little offshoot of San Jose. It turns out Campbell was once the home to three major fruit canneries that shipped fruit all the way to England. The Pruneyard Shopping Center was even part of a major Supreme Court decision on free speech and states’ rights. Who knew? If you need a short but very interesting spot to visit, the Campbell Historical Museum is sure to make you smile!