History of RAMM

Expand the sections below to find out how RAMM came into being and about some of the pivotal moments in its history.

Or let Senior Collections Officer Julien Parsons take you on a walk through the museum and tell you about the building’s architecture and how the museum’s displays have changed over time in this you tube video.

RAMM’s distinctive façade – a mosaic of local stone – has been a much-loved Exeter landmark for over 150 years. Explore this timeline to discover how RAMM came to be the building it is today and other milestones in its history.

Once open, the museum’s storerooms were soon overwhelmed with collections. These gifts helped to establish the museum’s world-class collections of objects, from prehistoric flint tools to rare shells and Devon lace. The timeline below lists some of the significant additions to the collection from 1868 to the present day. You can find out more about the individual collectors and donors in the Collectors section of this website and in the Finders Keepers? gallery in the museum.

Every object entering the museum comes with its own tale to tell. And just like our stories, they include episodes that are inspiring and uplifting, as well as ones that are traumatic and difficult to talk about. Explaining where an object comes from, who collected it and why, can raise difficult questions.

RAMM was created when Britain was a major colonial power controlling the lives of millions of people around the world. Collectors were fired by curiosity and wanted their collections to look as impressive as possible. They sometimes killed birds and butterflies simply for their beautiful colours. They didn’t always give much thought to conserving natural habitats or recording information about where and how objects were found. Some collectors abused their position and took without permission. Others treated the people and wildlife they encountered with respect.

RAMM continues to add objects and specimens to its permanent collection. Some are historic, documenting the city’s past landscape and people. Others record current biodiversity, new innovation and recent events. RAMM’s collecting is guided by its Collections Development Policy. The document outlines the kind of items the museum seeks to collect and the ethical considerations it adheres to. It is publicly available and reviewed at least every five years to ensure collections in RAMM’s care remain relevant and reflect contemporary society. You can explore recent acquisitions in another collections story.

From 2007 to 2011 RAMM underwent a major redevelopment, primarily funded by Exeter City Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The architectural firm Allies and Morrison designed a new gallery, entrance and courtyard. In 2012 RAMM won the Art Fund prize for Museum of the Year.

The gallery below contains a few snapshots from the project.

In 2018 RAMM marked a very special anniversary – 150 years since the new museum opened in Exeter. To celebrate, we recreated some of the events that took place in 1868, and we added some new ones. We invited everyone in the city to join with us.

Carnival of the Animals

In 1868 the opening of the museum was celebrated with a concert; so as part of the celebrations in April 2018 Exeter’s EMG Symphony Orchestra performed a museum-inspired programme at Exeter Cathedral. Our Carnival of the Animals was a new interpretation of the parade that took place on the day of the opening.

A new story book

Colour photograph of the front cover of 'Alfie's Night Out' showing a giraffe and a small bird

Children’s book illustrator Victoria Byron created a new book especially for RAMM’s 150th anniversary.

Alfie is a sparrow who sits amongst the other birds in the gallery. One night, when the visitors have all left, something magical happens: the museum comes alive and Alfie goes exploring. Victoria created colourful illustrations of some of the museum’s well known objects, as well as a few that aren’t always spotted by visitors. The book takes children on a wonderful tour of RAMM. You can purchase a copy from the RAMM shop in person and online.

Behind the scenes at the museum

RAMM gave Press and portrait photographer Jim Wileman special behind the scenes access capture what goes on at RAMM when the doors are closed to the public, or in areas where visitors are not able to visit. We gave Jim a ‘backstage pass’ to see how RAMM’s exhibitions are put together, to observe curators at work and see the delicate conservation work in the labs. He went on the roof with the Building Services Officer, watched the meticulous cleaning of the galleries, and visited the museum storage to see some of the many objects which are not currently on display. Below are a selection of the photographs that were displayed in an exhibition to celebrate RAMM’s 150th.

Phizogs – Bedwyr Williams

RAMM commissioned a new work from one of Britain’s most talented contemporary artists.

Bedwyr Williams is an artist, sculptor, writer, film-maker and stand-up comic. He studied at London’s Central St Martin’s School of Art and since graduating his work has been exhibited widely across Britain and Europe. Bedwyr works in various media including performance, video, sculpture and text, frequently exploring the friction between the deadly serious and banal aspects of modern life. His practice often satirises the role of the artist and curator by placing them in absurd scenarios. Frequently drawing from his life experiences, Bedwyr’s work offers a critique of our everyday world, while celebrating the obscure.

Bringing his renowned surreal sense of humour to bear, Bedwyr populated the Queen Street foyer with an array of human faces all found on artefacts in RAMM’s collections. Many of the featured objects can be explored on Collection Explorer.

Colour photograph of an art installation by Bedwyr Williams where faces from objects at RAMM are enlarged and arranged on the wall above the main staircase
Bedwyr Williams ‘Phizogs’

Added to the collections

Redisplays and redevelopments have dramatically changed the way RAMM looks. Browse through the images to go back in time from how RAMM looks today to some of the earliest photographs in the museum’s archives.

Queen Street Entrance

The magnificent stairs haven’t changed much since they were first built.

Making History

Initially home to the natural science specimens, this gallery now allows visitors to explore Exeter’s history through time all the way back to the earliest people in Devon.

Down to Earth

Once part storage and part gallery, this area has been a place to discover Devon’s geology for decades.


Once an outside space containing outbuildings, the Courtyard gallery is now a place to explore collections on two levels, mingle and hold events.

Shop at RAMM

This space has changed purpose many times over the past 150 years. Today it contains RAMM’s shop but previously it was an art gallery for temporary exhibitions, before that displays of prehistory, and in the earliest photograph we can find the space is being used as a lecture theatre.

More in Store

Now a storage area, this room once contained displays of Exeter’s local history.


Gerald the giraffe once stood where the cafe’s seating area now is. The spaces have also been used to display specimens of Devon whales and as a shop. The earliest photograph in our archive shows it used as a reading room.

Finders Keepers?

Today this gallery explores the collectors and donors who have shaped RAMM’s collections. Before this it was an art gallery showcasing RAMM’s fine and decorative art collections.

World Cultures

Even the earliest photos show this gallery with displays of objects from the World Cultures collection. Most recently the displays have been updated with support from the Designation Fund – in this gallery and the adjoining ‘Americas’ gallery it is easy to see which cases have recently been refreshed – the fabric has changed from calico to bright colours.

World Cultures (Americas)

Over time the use of this gallery has changed from natural history to world cultures. At times it has housed a mix of both.

Ancient Worlds

It’s easy to spot this gallery in old photographs due to the ornate metal railings.

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