The council's artefact collections have always been shrouded in mystery. For reasons of security, the detailed contents have never been published and the storage locations are not widely known. It seems likely most people have no idea of the considerable size of the collections and the wide range of objects they contain.
Talks to reopen the council's Guildhall Museum in alliance with the 'Visit Isle of Wight' tourist operation seem to have stalled. The Heritage Service is going to adapt Newport Roman Villa to display some items but there are clearly space limitations. Even the Guildhall Museum could only display a tiny proportion of the council's considerable collection. It now looks as if the vast majority of the collection will remain unknown and unseen by the public, at least for the foreseeable future.
The Museum Service began to acquire items relating to the island's history soon after its formation in 1975. The formation of a Unitary Local Authority in 1995 led to the assimilation of the property of former Borough Councils, through whom a miscellany of civic, local history and fine art collections were inherited, including ceramics, silverware, and paintings. The rapidly growing local history, art and archaeology collection led in 1996 to the formation of a Museum of Island History, in Newport Guildhall.
Existing local history and fine art collections mainly comprise the following:
-Local civic regalia, silverware, and ephemera.
-Local/social history objects made or used on the island, including trade tokens, and items of local souvenir ware.
-Local tradesmen's tools, shopkeepers' equipment and blacksmithing tools.
-Large industrial archaeology and transport objects, including static steam engines, brick making machinery, printing presses, farm machinery, a tram, a carriage, Thrust II parts etc.
-Historic photographs, postcards and ephemera.
-Paintings, prints and watercolours, including the late 18th century Rowlandson Collection of sketches, and fine mid-19th century watercolours of local view.
In 1975 a maritime history collection began to be assembled, exploiting acquisitions made following the closure of J. S. White shipbuilding, plus maritime items assembled from the amalgamation of the District Councils. These acquisitions led to the establishment of the Cowes Maritime Museum within Cowes Public Library. The maritime collections were expanded considerably with photographs, documents, ephemera, books, and pictures, and a miscellany of objects ranging from navigational instruments to a small number of boats. The maritime collection covers both shipbuilding and the design and building of small pleasure yachts and craft.
The archaeology collection has its origins in the 19th century, when a number of bodies amassed small collections of antiquities on the Island. Carisbrooke Castle Museum was established in 1889 and over the years it absorbed the various local archaeology collections. By 1975 concern was being expressed by the Trustees about the lack of space for the rapidly expanding archaeology section. By 1981 the Trustees and the County Council had negotiated for the permanent loan of the collections to the Council.
Today the archaeology collections comprise two major groups of material: collections on deposit or loan by various organisations, and items largely acquired after 1981 from excavations and by other means (donations, purchases, etc). All items relate to the Isle of Wight and its surrounding waters, and range from the Lower Palaeolithic to the nineteenth century. Nationally important assemblages exist of Lower Palaeolithic and Mesolithic flint tools, Bronze Age pottery and metalwork, Iron Age coinage, Roman remains, and Anglo Saxon coins and metalwork. Amongst the post-medieval collections are substantial remains from the wreck of the Santa Lucia (1567) and HMS Pomone (1811).
The council's collections are not completely inaccessible. Researchers can ask to view a particular item but they first have to discover its existence. Moreover, the council's dwindling labour resources make a visit difficult to arrange. Local museums are increasingly displaying some council items on loan but they have to meet strict criteria and many have their own space limitations. Some historians feel the council should now change their approach to collections by detailing some content and publishing a photographic record of many items. It might not do much for tourism but it would allow Islanders to feel more involved with the historical artefacts being held on their behalf.