The history of the Ruhr Museum began more than one hundred years ago with the founding of an Essen museum association in 1901, which was primarily run by the “Historischen Verein für Stadt und Stift Essen” (Historical Association for the City and Abbey of Essen) and the “Kruppschen Bildungsverein" (Krupp Educational Association). The museum, which opened on 4 December 1904, initially covered the fields of art, local history, natural history and ethnology and was one of the first to be founded in the Ruhr area. It was initially located in Essen's city centre in the old post office on Burgplatz.
After the municipal art collection, which formed the core of the later Museum Folkwang, was spun off, the "Museum der Stadt Essen für Heimat-, Natur- und Völkerkunde" (Museum of the City of Essen for Local History, Natural History and Ethnology) was founded in 1911. From the beginning, however, there was also an effort to develop an industrial museum for the entire Rhenish-Westphalian industrial district.
By 1927 the collection had grown to such an extent that the museum moved into the “Kruppsche Ledigenheim” (company's home for single people) at Essen-West railway station. In 1934 it was given the name "Ruhrlandmuseum". The fatal decision to present the local history collections separately in the "Haus Heimat" (house home) created by the National Socialists in 1937 led to the extensive destruction of the historical holdings. In 1954, the museum was able to reopen in the Knaudt Villa on Bismarckstraße and was extended by a new building in 1964.
From 1984 to 2007, the Ruhrlandmuseum and the Museum Folkwang formed the Essen Museum Centre on Goethestraße.
On 1 January 2008, the museum was given a completely new structure and founded as the Ruhr Museum Foundation under new ownership at its new location, the Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On 9 January 2010 the Ruhr Museum was opened as the regional museum of the Ruhr area together with the European Capital of Culture RUHR.2010 in the presence of the then Federal President Horst Köhler at the Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site in Essen. Just four years later, the Ruhr Museum welcomed its millionth visitor on 11 December 2013.
Ten years after the opening of the RUHR.2010 Capital of Culture and the Ruhr Museum, the big anniversary celebration "Ten after Ten" took place at Zollverein from 10 to 25 January 2020 with a huge public response. During the two-day museum festival on 11 and 12 January 2020 with an extensive cultural programme, the Ruhr Museum also welcomed its two millionth visitor.
The opening of the spectacular “Schaudepot” in the former Salt Factory at the Zollverein Coking Plant marks the end of the Ruhr Museum's relocation to the Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site with its exhibitions, functional rooms and depots. In its “Zentral- und Schaudepot” (central and show depot), the Ruhr Museum deposits and presents large parts of its geological, archaeological and historical collections as part of guided tours.