The collection was bequeathed to the people of Southwark by Henry Syer Cuming in 1902 and the museum opened in 1906. As described in Cuming's will it comprised, "My Museum illustrative of Natural History, Archaeology and Ethnology with my coins and medals and… other curios".
The gallery has a temporary exhibition programme and a programme of activities for young people. It is open from Tuesday to Saturday.
The building adjoins a local library. On this site, Charles Babbage, the Victorian mechanical computer pioneer, was born in 1791, although the original house has been demolished. A blue plaque records his birth.
On 25 March 2013 a fire seriously damaged the museum and library and destroyed some artifacts, including relics of the city’s Roman period. The museum now remains closed while restoration works commence, which the council says 'will take several years'. All artifacts have been moved to alternative locations following the fire.