The origin of RAMM's wonderful, diverse collection lies in the early 19th century. The story begins with the Devon and Exeter Institution. It was founded in Exeter in 1813 and amassed significant natural history specimens, as well as ethnography and antiquities. Many of its members took part in journeys of exploration and research around the globe. Their objects and specimens reflected this international dimension.
Other private collections in Devon came to RAMM. Such as those of F.W.L. Ross of Topsham, and the Vaughan family who had bought items from Captain Cook's voyages at the Leverian Museum sale in London in 1806.
These donations were complemented throughout the late19th century by a great variety of gifts, bequests and purchases. Natural History figured most strongly, but most of RAMM's current collecting areas were established. From early on the museum was international in scope. This was a reflection of the prominent role played by Devonian families in the army or navy, colonial service, and as missionaries and traders.
In the early 1900s there were several particularly important bequests. In 1904 the Percy Sladen echinoderm collection arrived, then in 1919 C.V.A. Peel's collection of mammals. Among this batch was RAMM's famous giraffe now called ‘Gerald'. Benefactors to the art collection included the horticulturalist Sir Harry Veitch, who in 1924 bequeathed a large personal collection of watercolours, oil paintings and prints.
The antiquities collection expanded considerably after 1930. A great acquisition was an extensive collection of medieval West Country woodwork formed by Harry Hems. Then, in 1946, Colonel Leopold Montague bequeathed 800 classical antiquities and ethnographic pieces to the museum.