Like many others, this Museum was the result of the Confiscation of Church Property led by the minister Mendizábal, who in 1836 nationalised the artistic treasures of monasteries and convents as part of the country's framework of liberal reform. These assets were secularised, put under State protection and opened for the public's enjoyment and education. The result was the creation of the so-called Regional Museums of Fine Arts.
The museum in Valladolid, one of the oldest in Spain, was set up in 1842 in the College of Santa Cruz, housing even then a collection of approximately 1,000 paintings and 200 sculptures.
During the 19th century, the Museum was in a precarious position and its survival was been possible thanks to the dedication and studies of some of the people at the helm, such as Pedro González, Martí y Monsó and Juan Agapito y Revilla. In 1879, some of its artworks were taken to create the Regional Museum of Antiquities, now known as the Museum of Valladolid.
From the early 20th century onwards, the Museum became a focal point for intellectuals, scholars and art lovers. It was a time of great interest in historical, popular and literary sources of what it meant to be 'Spanish'. The Museum's one-of-a-kind collections drew the attention of a group of students at the Centre for Historical Studies, who were the founders of a critical and scientific approach to the history of art. The group included individuals such as Elías Tormo, Gómez Moreno, Sánchez Cantón and, in particular, Ricardo de Orueta.
At the behest of Orueta, then the General Director of Fine Arts, the Second Republic decided to designate the Museum as a National Museum in 1933. That decision went hand in hand with an intentional strengthening of its speciality, made very clear by its new name: The National Museum of Sculpture. The aim was to enhance the regional and representative feel of the collection, giving the Museum a scientific and secular orientation and extolling the wealth of Spanish heritage.
As part of the same project, the Museum was transferred to the College of San Gregorio. The collection was enriched with pieces from the Prado Museum and was presented in a model museum installation, in line with the most modern international trends. It was designed by architects Emilio Moya and Constantino Candeira, with the contribution by Sánchez Cantón.
After the Spanish Civil War, the Museum suffered from the cultural backwardness and international isolation characterised by Franco's dictatorship. For a short time, it was renamed the National Museum of Religious Sculpture.
Since the 1960s, improvements have been made in the quality of its services and publications, as well as in its spaces and the presentation of its collections. In 1968, the collection of paintings was exhibited in the deconsecrated Church of the Passion.
The uniqueness of the space and the expressiveness of its sculptures attracted great artists. Orson Welles filmed the magnificent masquerade ball for the film Mister Arkadin there, and José Val del Omar filmed his ground-breaking documentary Fuego en Castilla (Fire in Castile).
The eighties, with the establishment of democracy, gave fresh impetus to museums in Spain thanks to the creation of a Ministry of Culture, the Spanish Historical Heritage Act, and Regulations regarding State-owned Museums.
In this context, the State took on a comprehensive reform of Museums, focusing on the acquisition of property, a growing availability of resources and technical equipment, the diffusion of education, and improving infrastructure.
The change began in 1982 with the reversion of the Villena Palace to the Ministry of Culture and the launch, in 1990, of the Master Plan that included the restoration of the Palace by architect F. Rodríguez Partearroyo (completed in 1998). This allowed the Museum to have a properly equipped venue to exhibit the collection while the restoration of the College of San Gregorio – entrusted to the architectural team Nieto y Sobejano – took place. The work received the 2007 National Award for Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.
Following the refurbishment and modernisation of its facilities, completed in 2009, the College of San Gregorio building is one of the two sites of the Museum's permanent exhibition. Specifically, it is home of the historical collection, made up of works by the great Spanish masters of polychrome wood sculpture. These date from the 15th to 18th centuries and were intended to fulfil a devotional or liturgical function.
The other venue is the Casa del Sol (‘House of the Sun’), located in the annex of the church of San Benito el Viejo. Its refurbishment was launched by the Ministry of Culture in 2011 to exhibit the collection of 19th and 20th century copies from the now-defunct National Museum of Artistic Reproductions in Madrid. This expansion doubled the content of the Museum (from 3,000 artworks to 6,000) and redefined its concept.
Aware of the need to adapt to social demand, the Museum designated a third site – the Villena Palace – to hold temporary exhibitions, educational activities, and public programmes. It now houses the library, archives, photography and restoration workshops, the 18th-century Neapolitan nativity scene, and the auditorium.
In 2018, it was unanimously awarded the Castilla y León Prize for the Arts as a national institution of exemplary character, which since its creation has contributed decisively to the preservation, safekeeping and dissemination of the sculptural heritage of the Castilian school, and which transcends Spain by housing pieces of incalculable artistic value from other places. In addition, the jury highlighted its dynamic, lively character, which is manifested in its thorough and outstanding programming.