The collections date back to 1814 when the Harwood Collection of Comparative Anatomy was bought by the University. Several other important collections were added later, including the Swainson Collection of birds and the zoological collection of the Cambridge Philosophical Society; the latter included many specimens collected by Charles Darwin.
In 1865 the Museum moved into a new building on the New Museums Site. The bulk of the existing collections were accumulated between 1865 and 1915. Many private collections of shells, insects, and birds were bought or donated, while expeditions brought back collections of insects, of marine invertebrates from the Indian Ocean, of fresh water fish and amphibians from Africa, and of mammals and birds from South East Asia and Australia. During the 1930s important collections of fossil fish from Scotland and Canada, of fossil reptiles from Africa, and (by exchange) of fossil mammals from North America were acquired.
The Museum of Zoology existed for about fifty years before the Chair in Zoology was established in 1866. The Museum and the Department of Zoology then occupied adjacent buildings for the next seventy years, but remained as separate institutions. In 1938, when the Director of the Museum was appointed to the Directorship of the British Museum (Natural History), the opportunity was taken to integrate the Museum and the Department.
The 1865 building was demolished in 1965 and the present building was erected (with earmarked UGC funding) on the same site alongside and connected with the Department of Zoology.
Between 1968 and 1970 the Museum was moved into this new purpose-designed accommodation. Five separate stores (two with air-conditioning, two temperature controlled) house the birds, other vertebrates, insects, other invertebrates, and the collection of specimens in spirit. The large modern display galleries with 300 metres of display frontage were reopened in 1973, and there are offices, laboratories, a workshop, preparation rooms, dark rooms, and a drawing office.
The Museum has full registration with the Museums and Galleries Commission.