These have been growing since early in the 19th century, and are still expanding, with particular emphasis on North East industrial and social history (including shipbuilding and coal mining), natural history, geology, glass and pottery made on Wearside, 19th and 20th century art, work by L S Lowry, archaeology and ethnography.
Highlights of the collection on display include the largest collection of Sunderland lustreware pottery in the world, the Londonderry glass table service (made on Wearside in the 1820s) and a very rare fossil Gliding Reptile (Coelurosauravus) which is 250 million years old.
The Winter Gardens houses an excellent botanical collection of over 2000 plants and trees, displayed to their full splendour in naturalistic settings under a single-span 30 metre dome.
For the gardener or botanist there are many fine examples of the world's most interesting and exotic plants, such as the primitive plants displayed around 'Fern Gully' which include Tree Ferns, Cycads, giant horsetails, and Michella figo, a relative of the Magnolias.
Visitors can see growing examples of many important plants from around the world, such as tea, coffee, sugar, citrus fruits, date palms, bananas, pineapple, mango, the vanilla orchid and gingers, as well as a number of plants that are used to make important medicines.
Some plants help to demonstrate the intricate and often delicate balance between plants and animals, and between nature and mankind, such as the Travelers Palm, Ravenala madagascarensis, which depends on threatened lemurs to survive in its native Madagascar. A number of exotic palms, such as the Australian King Palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae), a terrific specimen of the Bismarck Palm (Bismarckia nobilis) from Madagascar and a beautiful Malaysian palm can also be seen.
A staircase or lift takes visitors to the treetop walkway, where they can look down at the amazing sights. In the Mediterranean area there are examples of many plants more familiar to holidaymakers to southern Europe, such as the Oleanders and Echiums. On a large rocky outcrop is a fine European Olive tree (Olea europaea). This stands above a running stream, one of a number of spectacular water features within the Winter Gardens.