The Ulster Museum was founded as the Belfast Natural History Society in 1821 and began exhibiting objects and items from 1833. An art gallery was added in 1890.
Originally called the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, it moved to its present location in Stranmillis in 1929.
In the autumn of 1913, an open competition was announced for the building of the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery. Six months later a design of James Cumming Wynnes of Edinburgh was chosen. This was for a Neo-Classical design that consisted of a central courtyard flanked by four wings and conformed to the concept of the museum as a ‘temple’. The proposed entrance façade, overlooking the Botanic Gardens to the north, was composed of a giant Ionic colonnade comparable to that of Burnet’s Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum.
Construction only started on the building in 1924 once the Great War and post war troubles in Ireland had subsided. This meant that its monumental Neo-Classical style was already old fashioned compared to the art deco movement that dominated buildings in the interwar period.