The earliest record of a museum in the State of Tennessee dates back to 1817, when portrait artist Ralph E. W. Earl opened a museum on the public square in Nashville.
The official State Museum opened in 1937 in the War Memorial Building after being authorized by the General Assembly, which felt the state needed a museum to curate various collections and artifacts from the state and mementos from World War I. In 1981, most of the museum operations moved to the James K. Polk Building which it has shared with the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and state department offices.
Museum operations and policies are now overseen by the The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, a group of citizens appointed to represent the public interest.
In 2013, the State Building Commission revived plans for the new State Museum with a total budget of $160 million. At the request of Governor Bill Haslam, the General Assembly appropriated $120 million from the state, with the remainder to be raised through private donations.
The Tennessee State Museum also owns the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and part of the non-profit, privately-owned museum complex of the National Civil Rights Museum.