The collections are divided into three main categories whaling; fishing and the merchant trade. They concentrate on Hull's maritime activities from the late eighteenth century to the present.
Whaling originally began in the sixteenth century but really took off from c.1760. By the 1820s there were more than 60 whalers sailing out to the Arctic every season which brought back the produce, oil and baleen (whalebone), of some 600 Greenland whales. The oil was used for lamp fuel, softening coarse woolen cloths and various industrial processes including tanning.
The displays are remarkably comprehensive, showing the skeletons of various species of whale as well as the whole range of harpoons and tools used in the trade. Journals, logbooks and contemporary paintings of the ships are to be found as well as the largest collection of scrimshaw this side of the Atlantic. These decorated pieces of whalebone, walrus tusks and sperm whale teeth are the folk art of the whaler produced in his spare time aboard ship or after his return home.