In the middle of the nineteenth century the Royal Tongeren Historical and Archaeological Society began collecting archaeological finds. With the support of the provincial authorities, the Society also carried out excavation work. The objects were first put on public display in various locations in the city in 1854. Up until the first half of the twentieth century the Society regularly acquired new collections, often donated by private individuals who also carried out excavation work. In 1937 the collection moved to the newly established Provincial Museum in the Beguinage in Hasselt.
1954 saw the launch of the first real museum initiative. Important archaeological finds from the region were collected and shown in the Provincial Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren. The collection continued to grow, not least thanks to excavations carried out by what was then the National Department for Excavations, and to the museum’s own field organization and the many gifts. The museum displayed the objects in the traditional manner; it also organized the occasional temporary exhibition. The number of visitors increased to 20,000 a year. The museum became a regular destination for many schools.
In the early 1990s the provincial council decided to invest in a new museum building and in an innovative approach. The ‘new-style’ museum opened in 1994. Its attractions included the contemporary presentation of the collection, the scientifically-based educational activities and the accessible exhibition policy. The collection was systematically added to. For example, there was the cache of bronze axe-heads from Heppeneert, the Celtic cache of gold and a necklace from Beringen and the ‘Ambiorix coin hoard’, gold coins belonging to (among others) the Eburones.
However, the new museum soon became a victim of its own success. Almost 150,000 people visited the ‘Neanderthals in Europe’ exhibition in 2004-2005. The galleries were unable to cope with such large numbers of visitors in the way they have come to expect. In 2000 the provincial council gave the go-ahead for a new extension. By 2004 the financing for the new building was in place and in 2006 the building work got under way. This was the museum’s chance to become one of the most important archaeological museums in Europe.