The history of the Hôtel de Cluny and the founding of the museum in the 19th century are closely linked to the Du Sommerard family. Master-Advisor to the Courts of Accounts, Alexandre Du Sommerard (1779—1842) was among the enthusiasts of the first half of the 19th century who sparked a renewed interest in the medieval period. He amassed a vast collection of art from the Middle Ages and moved into a part of the town house in 1832. After his death, the French state acquired the Hôtel de Cluny and his collection of nearly 1,500 objects in 1843. That same year, the City of Paris granted the Gallo-Roman baths and the stone assets it contained, including the Pillar of the Boatmen, to the state.
During the 1830s, the architect Albert Lenoir (1801—1891) proposed establishing a “museum of national antiquities” or “museum of French art” within the Palais des Thermes and the Hôtel de Cluny, thereby protecting the buildings and following the example of the Musée des Monuments Français (1795—1816). In charge of restoring the thermal baths from 1838 and the Hôtel de Cluny from 1843, Lenoir revealed the ancient buildings from underneath later additions and conducted an in-depth restoration of the medieval residence, even contributing to the museographical installations. Under the Second Empire, he succeeded in preserving the perimeter of the former garden of the Abbots’ residence, at a time when the town planning projects under Napoleon III included the creation of a large public archaeological garden to the north of the buildings.
Placed under the aegis of the Commission of Historic Monuments, the museum covers the history of art from antiquity to the Renaissance and has benefited from a host of donations, such as the Apostles and stained glass from the Sainte-Chapelle.
Its leadership was entrusted to Edmond Du Sommerard, Alexander’s son. For 40 years, he expanded the collection significantly and made several major acquisitions, such as the Golden rose and the antependium from the treasury of Basel cathedral, the Lady and the Unicorn, The Life of the Nobles and The Legend of Saint Étienne wall-hangings, and the Visigothic crowns from Guarrazar.
On his death in 1885, the collection featured nearly 11,000 objects. The appearance of the museum changed with Edmond Du Sommerard in charge. The chronological period covered by the collections was expanded, the presentation became clearer and more scientifically accurate, and a first catalog was published.
His successors, Alfred Darcel and Edmond Saglio, continued and accentuated his work by extending the key theme of decorative arts, to which the museum had given rise, into the modern period.
After the Second World War, the visitor circuit was entirely redesigned. While the ancient works were displayed in the frigidarium of the thermal baths, medieval objects were exhibited according to themes, inspired by Étienne Boileau’s Livre des métiers, written at the end of the reign of Saint Louis. In 1977, the creation of the Musée National de la Renaissance at the Château d’Écouen brought about the transfer of over 5,000 objects. The fortuitous discovery of the heads from the Gallery of the Kings in Notre-Dame, Paris, in 1977 led to the creation of a new gallery in which to display them.
Since 2015, the Musée has undertaken an immense upgrade project. This includes the creation of a reception building, accessibility upgrades and a redesign of the visitor routes, which will be completed by 2022 and will bring the museum into the 21st century. From September 29, 2020 to May 12, 2022, the entire museum will be closed for the final phase of this project.