History of the museum

Museum's first director: Caspar ReuvensMuseum's first director: Caspar Reuvens
Around 1900Around 1900

At present, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden is housed in a huge monumental building at the Rapenburg, the most beautiful of the Leiden canals. But for scores of years, the museum had to settle for an entirely different accommodation and had to change locations several times. Its history of almost 200 years began in 1821, in a humble building at Houtstraat in Leiden.

The start

After King Willem I had established the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in 1818, the young director Caspar Reuvens began looking for a suitable building. In 1801, the National University of Leiden had bought a mansion at the Rapenburg, as well as a number of smaller premises ‘around the corner' at the Houtstraat. The mansion with quadrangle was a nunnery in the 16th century. In 1819, the complex was expanded to a number of adjacent houses, in one of which the university had meanwhile stored its natural history collection. Reuvens saw to it that his museum was given a place in the complex, and in 1821 The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden's first presentation was displayed in one of the Houtstraat premises.

Lack of space

In the following years, these buildings were rebuilt into museum rooms. The main entrance was now at the Rapenburg. The main tenant of the complex became the National Museum of Natural History, which had been established in 1821. But due to the rapid growth of the collection [link naar Collection, history] of ‘antiquities', an acute lack of space soon developed. For that reason, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden was moved to a building at the Breestraat in 1837. In that building, the whole collection could for the first time be admired by the public.
However, new acquisitions were made in rapid succession, and after twenty years the Breestraat building was also stuffed. Adding a storey to it in 1858 gave some comfort for a while, but in 1893, part of the collection had to be brought back to the building of the National Museum of Natural History at the Rapenburg, where more space had been created in the meanwhile.

Back to the Rapenburg

This situation was solved when the National Museum of Natural History left the Rapenburg 28 complex in 1918. In 1920, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden moved in. It was now back at the same location where it had started a hundred years ago and where the museum has been established to date.


Meanwhile, the building had undergone a transformation. Several reconstructions and renovations had made the complex of buildings into a whole. The Renaissance façade of the gate building at the Rapenburg was plastered in the nineteenth century, in an attempt to make the unheated building moisture-resistant. In 1947, the façade was rebuilt in the old style.
In 1971, the administrative ties with the University of Leiden were severed. Henceforth the contacts between the museum and the national government would come about on a direct basis. The Dutch government subsidises the museum and is the owner of the buildings.

Egyptian temple

Because in the 1970’s the Egyptian government donated the temple of Taffeh, the great inner courtyard of the museum had to be roofed over. By the end of 1979, the renovation was completed. The new central hall was an ideal accommodation for the temple, which had been deconstructed stone by stone and rebuilt in Leiden.

Recent changes

In 1996, a large-scale renovation started. The building and facilities were due for reconstruction. The southern wing of the museum complex was roofed over with a modern roof construction. When the project was completed in November 2000, the museum had an extra 600 m² of exposition space, more facilities for the public and a modern air-conditioning system. The better structured and larger building offered an excellent opportunity to alter most of the presentations of the permanent collection, a project that was completed in May 2001.