Collections held at the Museum mainly relate to the natural, social, industrial and maritime history of South Tyneside.
In particular, the Museum holds extensive collections of local art portraying the area by local artists and personal memorabilia once belonging to popular author, Catherine Cookson.
South Shields Museum & Art Gallery's art collection consists of mainly 19th and 20th century works by British artists. Apart from the inclusion of some works by nationally recognised artists, the collection is largely 'local' in character either in its imagery, origins of artist or by its donor.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the location of South Shields, maritime subjects are a strong feature of the collection.
The art collection dates from 1873 when the former Mechanics Institute building reopened as South Shields' first free public library. Three years later, a room in the library was given over to the opening of a museum. One of its first acquisitions was an oil painting of South Shields Market Place (about 1800) by an unknown artist.
The Museum today occupies the whole of the former library building and the fine art collection consists of approximately 500 items including works by nationally recognised artists such as Charles Napier Hemy (The Last Boat In'), Thomas Sidney Cooper, ('The Approaching Storm') and Harold Harvey ('Blackberrying'), artists popular in the North East such as John Scott, Ralph Hedley, and Robinson Elliott and by others too, not normally associated with fine art, such as novelist Catherine Cookson, who before finding fame and fortune through her written work had tried her hand as a commercial artist. Painting remained a passion of hers throughout her life.