Established in 1891 in the Old Perth Gaol, it was known as the Geological Museum and consisted of geological collections. In 1892, ethnological and biological exhibits were added, and in 1897, the museum officially became the Western Australian Museum and Art Gallery.
During 1959, the botanical collection was transferred to the new herbarium and the museum and the art gallery became separate institutions. The museum focussed its collecting and research interests in the areas of natural sciences, anthropology, archaeology, and Western Australia's history. Over the 1960s and 1970s, it also began to work in the then-emerging areas of historic shipwrecks and Aboriginal site management.
The Western Museum has six museum branches and four collection facilities. The museum also offers outreach services to all areas of Western Australia.
On 9 September 1891, the Geological Museum was opened at the site of the Old Gaol and housed the state's first collection of geological samples. The Old Gaol still forms a significant part of the Western Australian Museum — Perth and is one of the oldest standing buildings in Western Australia.
Shortly after the Geological Museum was opened, collections were expanded to include geological, ethnological and biological specimens and in 1897, the Western Australian Museum and Art Gallery was declared. From 1971 to 2003, a greater part of the research and display collections were housed in a large building on Francis Street. This site was closed due to concerns with asbestos, and demolition concluded in late 2011.
Throughout the Western Australian Museum's history the prominent James Street location has remained central to the museum's identity and the location of many large permanent and touring exhibits. Exhibitions on fashion, natural history, cultural heritage and history have attracted large numbers of visitors, including A Day in Pompeii (25 May - 12 September 2010) which attracted more than 100,000 people.
Permanent exhibitions on display at the Western Australian Museum — Perth include:WA Land and People: This exhibition tells the story of Western Australia from prehistoric times of dinosaurs, to indigenous beginnings, and through to environmental issues of the present day.
Diamonds to Dinosaurs: An exhibition exploring 12 billion years of WA's history, featuring specimens such as rocks from the Moon and Mars, pre-solar diamonds and dinosaur skeleton casts.
Katta Djinoong: This exhibition depicts the history and culture of the Aboriginal peoples of Western Australia from past to present.
Dampier Marine Gallery: This exhibit explores the biodiversity of the waters around the Dampier Archipelago.
Mammal, Bird and Butterfly Galleries: These galleries contain extensive collections of various animals.
The Western Australian Museum — Perth also features the Discovery Centre, designed to help children and adults interact and learn about the museum's collections and research.
The Western Australian Museum has two branches in Fremantle: Maritime and Shipwreck Galleries. The Western Australian Museum - Maritime is located on Victoria Quay (32°3′17″S 115°44′20″E), and contains galleries with themes such as the Indian Ocean, the Swan River, fishing, maritime trade and naval defence. One of the museum's highlights is the yacht, Australia II, which won the America's Cup in 1983. The museum is located in the historically significant Maritime Heritage Precinct, which includes the entrance to Fremantle Inner Harbour and associated installations; Forrest Landing, the remnant of the original limestone bar used by Aboriginal men as a crossing point at the mouth of the Swan River; the migrant Welcome Walls memorial; and the World War II submarine slipway area.
Immediately adjacent to the Western Australian Museum — Maritime on the WWII slipway is HMAS Ovens, an Oberon class submarine that is open for guided tours and commemorates the World War II Fremantle allied submarine base, which was the largest submarine base in the southern hemisphere, with 170 submarines of the British, Dutch and US navies conducting patrols from there.
Nearby in Cliff Street, the Western Australian Museum — Shipwreck Galleries is recognised as the foremost maritime archaeology and shipwreck conservation museum in the southern hemisphere. The museum is housed in an 1850s-era Commissariat building and contains a reconstructed hull from the Batavia, which was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. It also houses the horizontal trunk engine recovered from the iron steamer SS Xantho which sank in 1872. This unit, the only known example of the first mass-produced, high speed and high pressure marine engine, can now be turned over by hand. With its CEO also responsible for the historic wrecks off the coast of Western Australia, many shipwrecks appear in the Museum's exhibits. In 1980, the museum also commenced the development of a "Museum-Without-Walls" program via its "wreck trail" or "wreck access" programs at Rottnest Island. These "trails" now appear at many places along the coast.
Refurbished in July 2010, the Western Australian Museum — Albany is situated at the site of the first European settlement in Western Australia. This Museum explores the region's biodiversity, the stories of the indigenous Noongar people and ancient natural environment.
The Albany Museum was the original residence of Major Edmund Lockyer, the commanding officer of the settlement group that landed in Princess Royal Harbour on 26 December 1826, and formally proclaimed sovereignty on 21 January 1827 for King George IV of Great Britain, naming the place King George's Sound settlement (later renamed Frederickstown and then renamed again Albany). Together with the Old Gaol, and the buildings of the Amity heritage precinct (Breaksea Museum) and the Brig Amity (Replica non-navigable), they were the subject of investigation by the Commonwealth of Australia and UNESCO as a convict colonial settlement (not included in the formal nomination).
The Kalgoorlie-Boulder museum explores the history of the Eastern Goldfields, the city’s mining heritage and the hardships faced by the early mining and pioneer families.
The Geraldton museum is situated in Western Australia's rapidly growing mid-west region. This Museum explores the region's biodiversity, mining and agricultural history, the stories of the indigenous Yamaji people and the Dutch shipwrecks. The famous 17th century Dutch vessel, the Batavia, sank in the nearby Abrolhos islands. This Museum features the portico recovered from this wreck, which has been reconstructed to form the centre of the Museum's shipwreck gallery.
The Western Australian Museum has an extensive research program, with museum scientists and curators specialising in the fields of aquatic zoology, archaeology and anthropology, conservation, earth and planetary sciences, history, maritime archaeology, maritime history, and terrestrial zoology. The museum also has a specialist materials conservation team.
The Aquatic Zoology department is responsible for documenting and researching the marine, estuarine and freshwater fauna of Western Australia. The department includes sections that study malacology, ichthyology, crustacea, marine invertebrates and worms.
The Anthropology and Archaeology Department specialises in cultural anthropology and archaeology. The department's research, collections and public programs focus on understanding what it is to be human, cultural diversity, exploring complex relationships between society, culture, language, sociality and economy. The department specialises in the study of Ancient Egypt, Aboriginal cultures (particularly the South West, Pilbara, Desert and Kimberley regions) and indigenous cultures of the Ancient World.
The Earth and Planetary Sciences Department studies and collects in the areas of Fossils (invertebrate, vertebrate, plant and trace fossils), Minerals, Rocks, Gems, Meteorites and Tektites. The department's collection holds taxonomic and stratigraphic (rock layers and layering) material that is representative of Western Australia’s palaeobiological (the biology of fossil animals and plants) evolution and geological history from 3.8 billion years ago to a few thousand years ago. There are over 1.5 million items in the department collections.
The History Department specialises in developing collections reflecting the material life of Western Australians, and researching the story of the people and places in Western Australia in all its diversity. The department also holds the ECU Museum of Childhood Collection, a nationally significant collection of 24,000 items is reflective of Western Australian childhood.
The Maritime Archaeology department primarily researches shipwreck archaeology from the Western Australian coast, including the famous Batavia shipwreck. Its staff members are involved in developing artefact management and cataloguing strategies, outreach and wreck-access programs, site-inspection techniques, and studies of diverse maritime sites, such as iron ship archaeology, characterised by its SS Xantho program and underwater aviation archaeology. The department also conducts masters level programs in maritime archaeology in collaboration with University of Western Australia.
Maritime History specialises in collections of images and artefacts representing the individuals, communities, and organisations that contribute to the maritime history and heritage of Western Australia.
The Materials Conservation department is responsible for ensuring the 4.5 million items in the museum's collections are permanently preserved for reference, research and exhibition through the use of preventive and remedial conservation techniques in accordance with international and national standards of best practice. The Materials Conservation department also possesses a research division in its overall structure which develop conservation techniques and methodologies.
The Terrestrial Zoology department maintains large collections of a wide variety of terrestrial animals, including both terrestrial invertebrates and vertebrates, as well as marine mammals. The department includes sections that study: subterranean biology, ornithology, mammalogy, entomology, vertebrate biogeography, arachnids and myriapods and herpetology.
In February 2008, the Government of Western Australia announced that it would build a new $500 million museum at the East Perth Power Station site. However, following the election of a new State Liberal party government under Colin Barnett, the redevelopment plans were scrapped in early February 2009.
On Museums day in 2012, the Barnett State Government pledged to build a new museum at the Perth Cultural Centre at a cost of $428 million, for completion by 2019–20.
In late 2014, critical improvements to the Museum's Collection and Research Centre (CRC) in Welshpool commenced. This site will continue to house the Museum's research laboratories and working collections throughout the construction phase. The upgrades to the CRC include new collection storage, laboratories, and workshops to support ongoing research and to ensure that collections can be adequately prepared and conserved.
The Western Australian Museum — Perth site has closed temporarily from 18 June 2016 until 2020 to develop a New Museum for WA.
The Museum has produced its own publications of books over time, as well as Records of the Western Australian Museum since 1910 and for a short time between 1998 and 2005 produced Tracks. The Records of the Museum is the museum's peer-reviewed journal which publishes the results of research into all branches of natural sciences and social and cultural history. Between 1910–2012, over 800 articles were published in this journal, the vast majority written after 1975. All individual articles published through the records are available for free download on the WA Museum website.