Establishment of the National Museum was preceded by the establishment of the Czech Society of Sciences in 1789. The National Museum itself, which is the oldest and largest museum institution in Bohemia, was founded in 1818 under the name of Patriotic Museum by the ceremonial proclamation of the country nobility headed by Count Kaspar Sternberg, who was – among others – an important mineralogist and palaeontologist and dedicated his collection of minerals to the Museum. He was also appointed chairman of the Society of Patriotic Museum in Bohemia, which was founded in 1820 and became owner and administrator of the museum’s collections and organized the work of the museum. Initially the museum had no own building, so the first collections from donations from private collections of Czech aristocrats were gathered in the monastery of St. James, later in rented premises of the Sternberg Palace in Prague Castle and from 1845 in a one-storey Nostitz Palace Na Příkopě (at today’s Živnobanka).
A number of prominent personalities contributed to the development of the museum – such as František Palacký, the organizer and managing director of the Society of the Patriotic Museum, Jan Evangelista Purkyně, Joachim Barrande, Josef Dobrovský, Karel Jaromír Erben and many others. Also the foundation of till today published the first Czech scientific magazine called The Magazine of the National Museum (1827) and the establishment of Matice česká (1831), the publishing house of fundamental works of the Czech science and literature was of a great importance.
Since 1922 the museum bears its current name. In 1934 the Museum passed into the ownership and administration of the Czech country and in 1949 was transferred to state ownership. At the time of its founding collections focused mainly on natural sciences. František Palacký and other young patriots have contributed to the expansion of the collections with historical collection and the specialization in cultural and scientific fields. The growth in collections, however, required ever more space. During the demolition of the fortification around the New Town dr. Ladislav Rieger managed to convince the city council to donate the plot at the place of demolished Horse Gate for the new building of the Museum. In 1883 the Provincial Committee announced a competition for a project for a new building on the 13,500 square meter plot. The first prize was won by architect Josef Schulz, who was also responsible for the supervision of the construction works. From 1885 to 1890 the Neo-Renaissance building was built at a cost of 1,935,000 florins. It has a layout in the shape of a regular rectangle with sides of 104 and 74 m, the highest point of the building is 70 m above the ramp. 338 stairs lead from the fountain to the tower. There are a total of more than three and a half thousand doors and 562 windows. The building has two rectangular courtyards separated by central tract. The four quadrilateral towers with domes form four quoins. The main tower with a dome and lantern rises above the central part of the main facade.
The installation of collections was completed by the end of March 1891 and on 18 May 1891 the museum was inaugurated. The decoration of the museum by leading artists was roughly completed in 1903. The fountain beneath the entry staircase comes from 1892. The water flows from the lion’s mouth into the marble trough and further into the marble tanks. Against the backdrop of the fountain outside the main entrance ramp there are allegorical statues of Bohemia with St. Wenceslas crown, and Vltava and Labe on the sides, together with a nearby girl with spike as Moravia and a boy with a weaving shuttle as Silesia (author: Antonín Wagner). On the sides of the entrance to the building two figures sit: History and Literature and Natural Sciences (by Josef Mauder). Relief slabs under the Museum regni Bohemiae inscription on the facade, also by Antonín Wagner, depict the establishment of Zbraslav monastery by Wenceslas II, the foundation of the Charles University by Karel IV and Rudolf II in a circle of scholars. Allegorical groups called Dedication, Enthusiasm, Love of Truth and Love of the Past on the corner pillars are by Bohuslav Schnirch. The columned entrance hall is decorated with bronze statues of Libuše, Přemysl the Ploughman, St. Wenceslas and Přemysl Otakar II by the famous Munich sculptor Ludwig Schwanthaler. Other figures by this sculptor, which are placed at the Museum staircase, in the central wing of the building include: Elizabeth of Bohemia, Jiří z Poděbrad, Arnošt z Pardubic and Bohuslav Hasištejnský z Lobkovic. The staircase area is decorated with busts of sixteen men, who contributed to the museum, by Antonín Popp and Bohuslav Schnirch as well as Popp medallions of 32 Czech kings. On the walls of corridors around the staircase there are wall paintings of 16 Czech castles and historic monuments by Julius Mařák and Bohuslav Dvořák. The Pantheon of 400 m2 covered with the indoor glass dome is a representative area of the building. It serves festive occasions. On the walls there are four pictures of significant historical events: the message of Libuše and St. Methodius translating the Holy Scriptures (by František Ženíšek), foundation of the Charles University and J. A. Comenius in Amsterdam (by Václav Brožík). Allegories of Science, Progress, Art and Inspiration were painted by Vojtěch Hynais. In addition to bronze statues of Comenius, Palacký, Count Clam-Martinic and Kaspar Sternberg there are 31 busts of Czech national luminaries by leading sculptors (Antonín Popp, Bohuslav Schnirch, Ladislav Šaloun, Stanislav Sucharda, Jan Štursa, Čeněk Vosmík and others).
Until 1934 the museum was owned by the Society for the Patriotic Museum in Bohemia, founded in 1920. Since 1922 the museum has had the current name. In 1934 the museum passed into the ownership and management of Bohemia and in 1949 it was transferred to state ownership. From 8 July 2011, the building has been under reconstruction. The reconstruction works are planned till June 2015.