In 1783, William Hunter bequeathed his substantial and varied collections to the University of Glasgow. (Hunter, writing to Dr William Cullen) They were "to be well and carefully packed up and safely conveyed to Glasgow and delivered to the Principal and Faculty of the College of Glasgow to whom I give and bequeath the same to be kept and preserved by them and their successors for ever... in such sort, way, manner and form as ... shall seem most fit and most conducive to the improvement of the students of the said University of Glasgow."
The museum first opened in 1807, in a specially constructed building off the High Street, adjoining the original campus of the University. When the University moved west to its new site at Gilmorehill (to escape crowding and pollution in the city centre) the museum moved too. In 1870, the Hunterian collections were transferred to the University’s present site and assigned halls in Sir George Gilbert Scott's neo-Gothic building.
At first the entire collection was housed together, and displayed in the packed conditions common in museums of that time, but significant sections were later moved away to other parts of the University. The Zoological collections are now housed within the Graham Kerr Building, the art collections in The Hunterian Art Gallery, and Hunter's library containing some 10,000 printed books and 650 manuscripts, finally received in 1807, in Glasgow University Library. The University`s Librarian Professor Lockhart Muirhead became the first Keeper of the Hunterian Museum in 1823. Hunter’s anatomical collections are housed in the Allen Thomson Building, and his pathological preparations at the Royal Infirmary, Glasgow
The money to build the museum, and the core of its original collections, came from the bequest of the Scottish anatomist and scientist William Hunter, who died in London in 1783. As well as his medical collections, which arose from his own work, Hunter collected very widely, often assisted by his many royal and aristocratic patrons. He and his agents scoured Europe for coins, minerals, paintings and prints, ethnographic materials, books and manuscripts, as well as insects and other biological specimens. Hunter's eclectic bequest forms the core of the collections, but have grown considerably, and now include some of the most important collections of work by artists such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James McNeill Whistler, as well as superb geological, zoological, anatomical, archaeological, ethnographic and scientific instrument collections.
The Hunterian Museum re-opened in September 2011 featuring a new permanent gallery devoted to the Romans in Scotland and new opening hours of 10:00–5:00 Tuesday to Saturday, 11:00–4:00 Sundays and closed Monday.
The collections of the museum are distributed across a number of buildings around the campus:
Housed in large halls in George Gilbert Scott's University buildings on Gilmorehill, the museum features extensive displays relating to William Hunter and his collections, Roman Scotland (especially the Antonine Wall, geology, ethnography, ancient Egypt, scientific instruments, coins and medals, and much more.
The museum contains many donated collections, such as the Begg Collection of fossils donated by James Livingstone Begg in the 1940s.
In September 2016 the new Hunterian Collections and Study Centre, embracing the full range and activities of the Museum and the Art Gallery, opened in the transformed Kelvin Hall in Phase 1 of a partnership with Glasgow City Council Glasgow Life and the National Library of Scotland
Most of the zoology collections, including those of William Hunter, are displayed in a separate museum within the Graham Kerr building, which also houses most of the University's zoological research and teaching. This is also open to the general public. The insect collections are particularly important and extensive, and are the feature of some excellent recent displays.
The Gallery is now housed in a modern, custom-built facility that is part of the extensive Glasgow University Library complex, designed by William Whitfield. This displays the University's extensive art collection, and features an outdoor sculpture garden. The bas relief aluminium doors to the Hunterian Gallery were designed by sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. The gallery's collection includes a large number of the works of James McNeill Whistler and the majority of the watercolours of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The Hunterian Art Gallery reopened in September 2012 after a refurbishment, with an exhibition dedicated to Rembrandt, Rembrandt and the Passion.
The Mackintosh House is a modern concrete building, part of the gallery-library complex. It stands on the site of one of two rows of terraced houses which were once sections of Hillhead Street and Southpark Avenue, demolished in the 1960s to make room for the University's expansion across the residential crown of Gilmorehill. One of the buildings lost, 78 Southpark Avenue, was formerly a home to Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (although Mackintosh himself did not design it). The University rebuilt the form of the house (using modern materials) approximately 100 metres from the site of the original. Due to its displacement, one door now hangs precariously above a 20-foot (6.1 m) drop, the ground on what was once Hillhead Street having been radically excavated during the construction. The Mackintosh House features some of the original woodwork of the old terraced house, and features the meticulously reassembled interiors from Mackintosh's home.
William Hunter's brother John, a surgeon, also founded a museum; the London museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, also known as the Hunterian Museum, is based on his collection. The museum displays thousands of anatomical specimens, including the Evelyn tables and the skeleton of the "Irish giant" Charles Byrne, and many surgical instruments. It underwent a major refurbishment in 2003 and 2004, creating a new "crystal" gallery of steel and glass.
Both brothers are celebrated in the town of their birth, East Kilbride, at the small Hunter House Museum.