Scarborough's collections are in general of regional importance but certain parts of the collection are of national and international importance. Amongst the more important collections are artefacts from the Star Carr excavations, one of the earliest known sites of human habitation.
The Museums Service in Scarborough dates from the opening of the Rotunda Museum in 1829. The Rotunda is one of the finest examples of an early purpose built museum and its elegant tiers of mahogany display cases form, perhaps the finest small museum interior in the country. The Rotunda began life as the private museum of the Scarborough Philosophical Society. The museum's collection was declared inalienable in the 1830s and this secured the permanency of the Society's collections which included geology, mineralogy, zoology, entomology, conchology, coins, antiquities, books, ethnology and art. The Society's collections continued to expand during the 19th century, particularly the archaeology, bygones and art collections. The nature of the material collected was dictated by the interests of individual members. The current Collection is divided as follows:
The Art Collections
There are about 1,500 works in the art collection, principally oil paintings (200) and works on paper (including watercolours, prints and drawings) with a few pieces of sculpture (less than 10) and a small group of Filey ware ceramics, a group of clocks and some pieces of furniture (donated by Tom Laughton).
Overall the collection is of important local significance and includes subjects in the town and area by local artists from the 18th century to the early part of the 20th century. Good examples of these artists would be: H B Carter (1803-1868), John Wilson Carmichael (1800-1868), Ernest Dade (1865-1935) and Paul Marny (1829-1914).
The Printmakers Council Archive (116 works) was donated in 1992.There is a large and important collection of railway posters (though not as comprehensive as the National Railway Museum's holdings), a collection of 147 works on paper by Frank Brangwyn and over 60 works by Carter.
The Archaeology Collections
The archaeology collections represent two centuries of digging and include material of national importance as well as some very attractive small finds with strong local provenance. At present all acquisitions are from digs carried out by archaeological companies before development or from the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society. An exception is the material from Tim Schadla-Hall's digs in the Vale of Pickering and Star Carr. The collection is particularly strong in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods with large amounts of flint material but also important bone and vegetable artefacts. The Bronze Age is well represented with collections of pottery, complete pots, small finds and bone material, both human and animal. The most important collection from this period is the Gristhorpe Man collection consisting of a complete skeleton, the lid and parts of the base of an oak trunk coffin and a number of grave goods.
Scarborough has a modest Roman collection, the most important being the Romano British cemetery from Norton (discovered in the 1960s it numbers about 28 skeletons and grave goods).
The artefacts excavated by F. Gerald Simpson at Scarborough Castle during the 1920s are also deposited with Scarborough Museums. The papers of F. Gerald Simpson and his daughter Grace Simpson pertaining to the Scarborough digs were acquired in 2005.
Scarborough's Medieval past is well represented with collections of material from Scarborough Castle, Ayton Castle and medieval streets in the town.
Numismatics and Ethnography have traditionally sat under archaeology at Scarborough and continue to do so. These collections are comparatively small and reflect the interests of former curators. They are of mixed quality and have not been added to or re-evaluated for many years.
The Natural History Collections
The natural history collections comprise mounted and study collections of bird and mammal skins, birds' eggs, shells, herbaria and insects. The Brown and Walsh insect collections are important examples of 19th and early 20th
century natural history collecting. The William Bean collection of molluscs is an important natural history collection of the Regency period. All three have strong local provenance and have a role to play in the history of the Borough.
The geology collection contains about 8000 specimens and can be divided into palaeontological material and mineralogy. The palaeontology collection includes 80 Type or Figured specimens of international importance; other highlights include Middle Jurassic plants and dinosaur footprints, Upper Jurassic marine material and collections from the chalk. The Speeton plesiosaur is perhaps the single most important specimen.
The mineral collection contains some very good display specimens. The majority of the geology collections date back to the earliest days of the Scarborough Philosophical Society and as such are of historical importance, although unfortunately this is tempered by the lack of accompanying data for much of the collection.
The Social and Local History Collections
The social and local history collection is fairly typical of a small provincial museum service. It includes all forms of photographic media, ephemera and books as well as costume, domestic material and working life.
The collection of Tunny (Blue Fin Tuna) fishing material, much of it from the British Tunny Club, is an important contribution to the history of rod and line fishing in Britain.
The Clarke charm collection comprises some 500 items from all over the world and covering all forms of charm. The Clarke collection has yet to be fully researched.
The ephemera and photographic collections are essentially local but include tourist guides dating back to the late 18th century that have a bearing on the history of tourism and travel.
Scarborough is credited with being the first English seaside resort and key items that demonstrate this have been collected including a late 19th century Scarborough Jockey cart and a bathing machine.