Dating from 1,100BC to the present day, the collection comprises over 13,000 objects, about a quarter of which are ceramics.
The core collecting areas also include glass, metalwork and furniture. However, early collecting also included antiquities, arms and armour, coins, enamels, ivories, Chinese jades. Although most of the material is British or European, there are objects from every continent except South America, with significant groups from China and Japan.
The collection has developed since the 1880s through gifts, bequests and purchases, hence its broad ranging and eclectic character. It becomes more coherent when viewed as an illustration of changes in the style and consumption of handmade and industrially produced decorative arts in Britain from the 1600s. The strongest areas of the collection date from 1600 to 1820 and these also represent pre-industrial craft practice and the transition from workshop to factory production.
Since the first purchase of Minton Pottery from an exhibition in 1884, the Galleries have shown a strong interest in the contemporary and so the late Victorian and modern collections are of high quality although not as comprehensive as the pre-Victorian.
From 1925 to 1939, whilst developing the studio pottery collection, Lawrence Haward also created a pioneering Industrial Art Collection by sourcing contemporary material directly from manufacturers and British industries fairs.
This dual interest in craft and industrial design continues with recent purchases in both areas focusing on innovation in design, use of materials and practice. In particular there has been a new emphasis on works that blur the traditional boundaries between fine art, craft, and design.