Our collections form the basis for study and research by students, personal and professional researchers, fellow curators and specialists from the region and beyond.


Rosemary Stewart – PhD Research Student

The topic of this research is the raw materials used by people in later prehistory to make their stone tools. A vital part of this research is to explore the lithic collections held in West Country museums.

Rosemary Stewart – Dozmary Pool report (pdf)

Sarah Newstead – PhD Research Student, University of Leicester

Sarah’s PhD project studies the effects of the burgeoning 17th-century Newfoundland cod trade on long-standing dynamics between English and Portuguese merchants, consumers and producers. Information was gained from both archival and archaeological sources in Newfoundland, England and Portugal.

Sarah Newstead – researcher profile (pdf)

Maria Duggan – PhD Research Student, Newcastle University

Links to Late Antiquity: Understanding Contacts on the Western Seaboard in the 5th to 7th Centuries AD. My PhD project studies imported pottery on post-Roman sites in Britain, Ireland and on the Atlantic seaboard of continental Europe.

Maria Duggan – researcher profile (pdf)

Peter Houghton – Medieval Floor Tiles of Plympton Priory

Peter Houghton lives in Plymouth and studied for a BA in Archaeological Studies at Bristol University. This project was carried out as part of ongoing research into the medieval floor tiles recovered during archaeological excavations within the monastic sites along the Devon and Cornwall border.

Pete Houghton – Plympton Priory tile report (pdf)

Cottonian Collection

Over the past decade, the collection has been the subject of various projects.

The collection received Designation status in 1998, and a number of core activities were undertaken between 1999-2002 to improve awareness and access to the collection. Find out about the work undertaken in the Designation project page.

A number of projects have recently taken place. Click the links below to find out more:

Furniture project

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery was awarded £49,945 from the Arts Council England’s Designation Development Fund to carry out some much needed research and conservation work on the historic furniture. Find out more about the project or read our blog posts to find out about the work involved.

University of Plymouth Research Initiative

We worked with faculty and students at University of Plymouth’s Centre for Research in Humanities Music and Performing Arts (HuMPA) to investigate and better understand the history of the Cottonian Collection. Find out more on our Cottonian Collection mini-site.

The Expert Eye

As part of our Research Initiative partnership with University of Plymouth, we asked the experts at the University to choose one object from the Cottonian Collection and tell us the story behind it.

Plymouth’s Greatest Gift

This project was run during 2013-14 by a group of students from  University of Plymouth, in collaboration with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, to rediscover the Cottonian Collection. Find out about more about the project or read their blog to find out more about the research, events and new interpretation they were involved in.


The Story of the Cottonian Collection
by Florence A. Stanbury
Published: Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 1992

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-1792): The Self Portraits
by David Mannings
Published: Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 1992

Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius
by Donato Esposito, Jenny Graham and Cristina S. Martinez, edited by Sam Smiles
Published: Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 2009.

Fine Art

In the Frame

This exhibition featured works from the permanent collections, many of which are rarely seen. As part of this project, staff and volunteers researched paintings within the collection to try and reveal more about their history, to identify unknown sitters or attribute works to artists where this is currently unknown.

Find out more about the research and preparation for our exhibition by reading our blog posts.

Natural history

St Aubyn project

Using a grant secured from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, we were able to conduct a variety of work from translating catalogues, carrying out research and conservation work to deciphering and updating labels, and ensuring safe storage of the St Aubyn collection. The collection was also digitised in order to create an online database.

St. Aubyn project research 2008-2009 (pdf)

In recent years, there has been some ambiguity with de Bournon’s catalogues because both volumes have been written in French. This has made it very difficult for the natural history department to understand how the catalogue relates to St. Aubyn’s collection.

However, using a grant given by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a member of staff at the Royal Cornwall Museum translated the catalogues. Below are three essays which were uncovered during the translation. These essays are really important because they show us the ideas that the scientific community had about geology almost 200 years ago.

Find out more about the catalogues in the documents below.

St Aubyn mineral catalogues (pdf)

A New System of Mineralogy (pdf) – a scan taken from Babington’s catalogue.

Essay one – General considerations on different earth types (pdf) – translation of an essay within de Bournon’s catalogues.

Essay two – Calcareous earth (pdf) – translation of an essay within de Bournon’s catalogues.

Essay three – Limestone in the crystalline state (pdf) – translation of an essay within de Bournon’s catalogues.

Pickle collecting 2007 and 2008

During the summer of 2007 and again in 2008, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery collected specimens of marine life from in and around Plymouth. The projects were supported by funding from Renaissance in the Regions. Permission was sought from the landowners and other authorities before any sampling began.

Summer 2007 Littoral project

Photograph of a man and woman standing on a shoreline collecting marine specimensChris Ayre and Hayley Bishop were employed to carry out sampling of marine animals (fauna) at Mount Edgcumbe, Mount Batten and Jennycliff.

The collecting work was carried out between the high tide and the low tide, also known as the littoral zone. The collection contains over eight hundred specimens representing more than ninety species. This modern collection signifies the important marine fauna at these three sites. Researching this collection and comparing it to the older collections held at the museum, will allow researchers to see how species have changed in and around Plymouth.

Summer 2008 Seaweed project

Chris Ayre and Neil Jones were employed to carry out sampling of the seaweeds (marine algae) at Mount Batten, Jennycliff and Cawsand Bay.

This is a collection of over two hundred specimens. It includes wet preserved specimens (‘pickles’), and dry mounted specimens (herbarium sheets). Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery holds several bound or loose herbaria of marine algae, including an early important collection made by Sir John St Aubyn and a detailed bound collection by George Carter Bignell. This project has produced a modern pressed seaweed and spirit collection, which can be used to identify old specimens in the museums collection and compare a species preserved in different ways.

Collections review of the Spirit Preserved specimens

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery holds over half a million objects! Many of these objects need a lot of research to find out the stories hidden behind them. In 2010, we were successful in funding from the Museums Association to carry out a very detailed collections review of the spirit collections.

The aim of the collections review was to work closely with two specialists in marine zoology to go through the collections and share their specialist knowledge with the curators. There are over 4000 specimens in the spirit collections, and we wanted to know what we had, so the specimens could be used to their fullest potential. The document below is a detailed write up of this review.

Natural History Spirit Preserved Specimens collections review (pdf) – this file is 7.78MB

The review, adapted from the UCL Collections Review Toolkit, highlighted specimens which needed serious conservation, and scientifically important specimens including a type and two co-type specimens, and several specimens from Scott’s Antarctic expedition in 1910.

The museum has worked closely with the specialists, and experts from the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth to successfully transfer some specimens to other museums. These specimens will be used more in these museums, and allows the curators at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery to work on the local fauna from Plymouth.

Type Specimens article (pdf) –  this file is 4.46MB.

Further reading:

Social history

Stories from the Stores

During 2013 to 2014, we assessed the Social History collection as part of an ambitious project to inform the social history collection. This was awarded a ‘Your Heritage’ grant of £46,100 by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. The collection was displayed during summer 2013, and we invited the public to add their stories to the objects.

We knew that there are many gaps in the collection and that we probably have too many of certain types of objects. This project helped us to work out what we should be collecting. Our ‘Stories from the Stores’ exhibition (8 June to 24 August 2013) enabled us to ask for peoples’ thoughts about which objects we should collect in the future and about the items we’ve already got.

As well as adding new things in the future, it’s also just as important that we make the most of the collection we already have. In many cases we didn’t know how or why an object had come into the Museum. In some cases we didn’t even know what it is! This project enabled us to collect stories, information and memories associated with particular objects to make them meaningful again.

World cultures

Over recent years we have been involved in some major projects.

World Cultures @ Plymouth

The ‘Access Regeneration to World Cultures’ project ran to help safeguard the world cultures collection for the future and improve access to it. The project was supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and also Renaissance in the Regions. To find out more about what the project has achieved, read on, or go straight to the online catalogue.

Safeguarding the collection for the future

One of the main objectives of the project was to re-house the world cultures collections to current conservation standards. This means that the objects have been re-packaged into boxes and supports that are acid-free and archivally safe. This new packaging will protect the objects and not adversely affect them.

The storage area where the world cultures collection is kept was also upgraded. The environment is now controlled, so that the objects are kept at a stable temperature and humidity, meaning that the objects will not suffer from environmental fluctuations. This is important as extremes of environment can cause expansion and contraction of the materials that the objects are made of. In turn, this leads to cracking and warping of the materials and, in some cases, irreversible damage to the objects.

Creating better access to the collection

The project also looked at the documentation of the objects. Every museum object should have an individual number called an accession number. This enables the unique information about an artefact to be recorded and helps them to be easily located.

As part of the project almost every object in the world cultures collection was digitally imaged. These images have now been attached to the artefact records and can also be used for a variety of purposes, for example being used on this website.

The project also worked with the Museum’s Learning Team to develop Museum in Transit units for use in schools and at other locations. The Learning Team have also contributed teachers notes to these web pages, so that pupils can be directed to find out more about the objects in the collection.

All the project work means that the collection is now far more accessible to staff who will be able to use the objects more effectively for future exhibitions and museum projects. Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery will also be able to provide a better service to researchers and enquirers.