The collection ranges across many material types from ship models, navigation instruments, souvenirs, sea chests, paintings and photographs. Most of these were donated to the Port Adelaide Institute by seafarers who passed through Port Adelaide during the 19th and early 20th century.
The Port Adelaide Nautical Museum is believed to be the oldest maritime collection in Australia. The collection was begun in 1872 as a general museum collection of the Port Adelaide Institute. It was assembled from donations from members. It included seafarer’s souvenirs of voyages to the Pacific, pieces of shipwrecks and famous ships. They ranged from manufactured souvenirs such as a copper plaque made from the copper sheathing on Horatio Nelson’s ship Foudroyant, to a piece of the hull of the German raider Emden bearing a bullet hole, to weathered pieces of timber taken from local wrecks. In the 1920s the collection was given a clear focus on maritime heritage and other material such as taxonomic specimens and European paintings were deaccessioned.
At one level the collection is significant as a record of a 19th century museum and mechanics institute and of the 19th century movement for self education. At another level, the collection is disparate and includes material that is significant to many themes including naval history, commercial shipping, life at sea, ship technology, shipwrecks, and maritime art and craft. An encompassing theme is the view of the world the collection presents from the place where it was collected. There is a focus on South Australia but also souvenirs of the places seafarers visited in Asia and the Pacific and links to their European heritage.