As far as is known, the idea of a national museum emerged for the first time in the 1850s. At the time, the University of Helsinki possessed collections, of which some dated back to the era of the Royal Academy of Turku. When Imperial Alexander University began operating in Helsinki in 1828, the university also included a collection called the money, medal and art cabinet.
The ethnographic and archaeological materials accumulated in the collection since 1835 started to be presented as a separate collection, which became known as the Ethnographic Museum in 1840. The numismatic collection formed the money and medal cabinet. The collections were administratively separated from each other in 1849. In 1875, the name of the Ethnographic Museum was changed to the Historical and Ethnographic Museum, which better corresponded to its nature.
In the 1870s, two new important national collections emerged: the collection of the Finnish Antiquarian Society and the Ethnographic Museum of the Student Unions. The university’s lack of space for the collections led to the university consistory proposing on 19 February 1887 that the state should take possession of the Historical and Ethnographic Museum. This initiative proposed that premises be built for the museum and that the collections of the Finnish Antiquarian Society and the Student Unions also be placed there. Although the collections were not formally transferred to the state and under the management of the State Archaeological Commission until 1893, the process of designing the museum building was launched in 1887, and the collections were the state’s responsibility in practice. This marked the beginning of the National Museum, which was initially called ‘the State’s Museum Collections’. People gradually started to talk about the State Historical Museum.
The first plans for the museum building were drawn up in 1888–1889. The drawings were made by architect Sebastian Gripenberg. The intention was for the building to be a Renaissance Revival palace similar to yet smaller than Ateneum. The project was delayed by the search for a construction site, and when a suitable plot was finally located in Töölö in 1898, the planned palace no longer fit the era’s views on architecture and museums.
In 1902, a public architecture competition was organised for the museum building, and it was won by an architect trio comprising Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen. The construction work started in autumn 1905 and was completed in 1910. The State Archaeological Commission took possession of the building, but the exhibition spaces had yet to be fully finished. The historical and ethnographic exhibitions were finally opened to the public in January 1916, the prehistoric exhibition in 1920 and the money and medal chamber in 1927.
In 1916, the museum was officially renamed the National Museum of Finland.