As early as 1940, a museum had existed in Penang, located at St. Xavier's Institution. This modest museum was destroyed during the Second World War. In 1956, under the encouragement of a Mr. Bingham, the nucleus of a new museum took shape at a residence in Northam Road (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah). When the building was demolished, the available collections of artifacts and s were scattered. The initiative to run a museum was subsequently left to historical and arts societies which held lectures, exhibitions and undertook research.
The proposal to have a state museum in Penang was suggested by the state government in 1962. The first Prime Minister of the nation, Tunku Abdul Rahman, had proposed that the existing Hutchings School be utilised for the project. The school was the premise of the Penang Free School where he and many leading citizens of the country had been pupils.
Work began in 1963 with the formation of a working committee. By July 1964, both the receipt of artifacts and reconstruction of the school building were proceeding smoothly. The State Management Committee was formed and the Museum was officially opened on 14 April 1965.
In the same year, the art gallery was added to the Museum. The State Secretary functioned as the Chairman of the Management until 1971, when the Museum Board Enactment was passed by the State Legislative Assembly.
Two years later in 1973, the State Museum Board was formed and made a statutory body. The newly-appointed curator was made secretary of the Board to be responsible for the everyday management of the Museum.
The Museum recently underwent a complete renovation.
Today, the Museum possesses and artifacts that are state treasures. Outstanding amongst these are eight of the ten original oil paintings executed by Captain Robert Smith (the remaining two being in a private collection).
Other artifacts of note include extensive collections of Baba Nyonya porcelain, furniture, jewellery and costumes that are unsurpassed in their artistic beauty and historical value.
The Museum is the history of, and a tribute to, the peoples of the island. It emphasises the multi-cultural composition of the state and demonstrates unity in diversity. The inherent grace and cultural heritage of each community are reflected in the national treasures, cultural and religious performances and the mores of each individual society.
The displays in the Museum render an instant picture of what Penang was and what it is today; it is a microcosm of the macrocosm outside, past and present.
Together, the peoples of Penang have attracted and impressed visitors with their harmonious coexistence such as not seen in many parts of the world. This harmony continues to weave "a spell which makes those who have never been, wish to go there, those who live there want to stay, and fills those who have spent their appointed hour or so with a longing to return" (J.W. Clark, George Town, Penang Illustrated Guide, Margaret Adams [comp.] 1952).