The Museum of Science and Art, Dublin was founded on 14 August 1877 by act of Parliament. The decision to a state-run museum arose from requests by the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) for continued government funding its expanding museum activities. A number of developments led to the Science and Art Museums Act of 1877, which had the effect of transferring the buildings and collections of the RDS to state ownership. The collections were further enhanced by the transfer of other notable collections from institutions such as the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD).
The Museum was the responsibility of the Department of Science and Art, which was also responsible for the South Kensington museums in London. State support for the institution was manifested in the construction of a new building on Kildare Street, which opened to the public in 1890. The new museum housed coins, medals and significant Irish antiquities from the RIA including the Tara brooch and Ardagh chalice, ethnographical collections with material from Captain Cooke's voyages from TCD, and the collections of the Geological Survey of Ireland. These were joined by material from the decorative arts and ethnographical collections of the RDS along with their Irish collections of antiquities, minerals and plants. The old RDS museum on the Merrion Street side of Leinster House - erected with government assistance and opened in 1856 - was devoted to natural history. It was dominated by zoology throughout much of its subsequent history and had an annexe devoted to geology.
The building on Kildare Street was designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and was used to show contemporary Irish, British and Continental craftsmanship in its construction. State involvement in the running of the Museum allowed for steady funding and a connection with other state museums in London and Edinburgh which was of considerable benefit. The collections grew with material acquired through purchase, public donation and shares of significant collections acquired by the state and dispersed by the London museums. Catalogues were prepared by leading experts in various disciplines and printed in the Museum's own press. In 1900 control passed to the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction and in 1908 its name was changed from ‘the Dublin Museum of Science and Art’ to the ‘National Museum of Science and Art’. The name of the institution was changed again in 1921 to the ‘National Museum of Ireland’.
After the foundation of the Free State in 1922, the old RDS buildings of Leinster House (which had been transferred to state ownership along with that institution’s museum collections in 1877) were chosen to house the new parliament (Dáil). Space had to be found for Museum staff formerly located in Leinster House and a number of exhibition galleries in Kildare Street were taken over for this purpose. The Natural History building was given a new entrance directly onto Merrion Street and the architecture was altered to allow the present opening at the east end and the development of new staircases.
Responsibility for the Museum passed to the Department of Education in 1924; in 1984 it was transferred to the Taoiseach’s Department and, in 1993 to the new Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (later Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands). In 2002, control of the Museum passed to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism before, finally, being established as a semi-state autonomous agency under its own Board in 2005.
Throughout the later 20th Century the key needs of the Museum were the acquisition of sufficient space for the exhibition and storage of its collections and the provision of the necessary staff to curate and care for the collections and to provide adequate public services. Opportunities for new premises arose following a Government decision in 1988 to close Collins Barracks, Dublin. The complex started out in 1702 as 'The Barracks', changed in the early 19th Century to the 'Royal Barracks', and was re-named Collins Barracks in 1922 when it was taken over by the Free State. The original buildings were designed by Col. Thomas Burgh and the complex, which includes 18th and 19th-Century buildings, housed troops for three centuries. It was assigned to Museum use in 1994 and the first phase of exhibitions on the site (Phase 1) opened in September 1997. Work on Phase 2 at the west of the site will commence in 2009. In September 2001 the Museum’s Country Life branch was opened at Turlough Park, Co. Mayo. Turlough Park House (a Venetian Gothic building designed by Thomas Newenham Deane) and its gardens house the Museum’s national Folklife collections; these are devoted to traditional crafts and everyday life in rural Ireland in the century or so since the Great Famine.
The provision of these additional facilities has been mirrored by changes to the structure and governance of the Museum in the 1990s. An Interim Board was appointed in 1994 to oversee the development of the Collins Barracks site and to address the challenges of this development. The National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 provided for the setting up of the Museum as a non-commercial semi-state body under an autonomous Board and the transfer of staff out of the Civil Service. The first Board was appointed on 2 May 2005.