Sunderland Borough Council took over the running of a privately owned museum in the centre of the city in 1846, making Sunderland the first publicly funded museum in the country outside London. In 1879 a new purpose-built library, museum and winter gardens was built in the city’s park to designs based on Crystal Palace. Highlights of the collection include the largest collection of Sunderland lustreware pottery in the world, the Londonderry glass table service (made on Wearside in the 1820s), a very rare fossil Gliding Reptile (Coelurosauravus) which is 250 million years old and an excellent botanical collection of over 2,000 plants and trees.
In 2001 the library moved out of the building and the museum underwent a redevelopment project, creating additional gallery space and an extension to the much-loved winter gardens. The gallery’s strength lies in its collection of works by 19th and 20th-century British artists including Gabrielle Dante Rossetti, Clarkson Stanfield, Edward Burra and a number of paintings by LS Lowry, as well as contemporary works by Thomas Schindler, David Inshaw and Neil MacPherson. Curators use the galleries and winter gardens to site exhibitions and temporary commissions. The gallery stages a varied programme of temporary exhibitions and commissions throughout the year working closely with contemporary artists.