The collection covers the Birmingham School of Art from before its formation as a Government School of Design in 1843 up until its absorption by Birmingham Polytechnic in 1971. The collection includes a substantial number of art works by past teachers and students of the school; these include Florence Camm, Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, Charles March Gere and Arthur J Gaskin. With municipalisation of the School in 1885, and under the heads Edward R Taylor and Robert Catterson-Smith, the School gained a freedom in its teaching and pioneered an arts and crafts system of designing by actually making. This aspect of teaching is very much reflected in the collection. Each of the various departments within the School over the years is represented in the collection in some way including the School of Printing, Fashion and Textiles, Fine Art, Ceramics, Jewellery and Metalwork and Furniture Design.
Although the collection spans from the 1870s onward, the majority of the works of art date from the 1880s to the 1920s. At this time the Birmingham School of Art was at the forefront of art education being one of the largest and most successful Government Art and Design Schools. The majority of these works are works on paper, but there is a small number of works on canvas and board. The subject matter covers over 20 different categories including portraits, botanical illustrations, life studies, mind drawings, shut-eye drawings and memory pictures. The works of art held in the collection include a small number of applied art objects including metalwork, stone and bronze sculpture, glass and ceramics and needlework. Further applied art and three-dimensional work by students and teachers is recorded in the form of mounted photographs and lantern slides. Design work forms a substantial part of the art works in the collection; many of these relate to the Royal Society of Arts Industrial Bursary Competition entrants of the 1950s and 1960s.
Various other teaching aids are held in the collection, reflecting changes in teaching practice over the last 100 to 150 years. Around 400 posters form part of the collection, many of which relate to the London Underground and rail services of the 1920s-1950s. At the height of its School of Art's popularity in the early twentieth century, a number of branch schools existed in various areas of Birmingham. Small collections of work from these schools are also included in the Birmingham School of Art Archive.
Information regarding the administration and management of the college is retained in the collection through minute books and files relating specifically to the School of Art as well as Birmingham Education Committee. Various other minute books, registers, files, logs, reports and school prospectuses detail the history of the School since its inception in the 1820s. There are a substantive number of student records cards in the collection.