In 1911, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees approved the establishment of two new institutions: a Classical Museum and a European Cultures Museum. In 1917, a third institution was added, The Oriental and Archaeology Museum. All three were located on the fourth floor of Lincoln Hall, on the west side of the University Quadrangle.
Each of the original directors, Dr. Neil Brooks (European), Dr. Arthur Pease (Classical), and Dr. Albert Olmstead (Oriental) was concerned with acquiring the best possible collections for his museum, both for historical significance and educational use. It was during these first years that important pieces in today's collections, such as a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible and twenty-nine papyri fragments from the ancient Greek colony of Oxyrhynchus, were acquired. However, even in the early days of these institutions there was talk about the need to construct a new building to make the artifacts more accessible to the public.
In 1929, the Classical and Oriental Museums were combined, to be joined by the European Museum in 1954. From this solid base, the museum began to broaden its interests to areas not previously covered in the collections. Contemporary and non-Western artifacts were added to the ledgers alongside Greek statues and suits of armor. One of the first areas of development was in pieces from sub-Saharan Africa. By 1971, this multicultural focus was reflected in a new name, the World Heritage Museum.
With the growth of the collections came a change in the look of the galleries. During the 1980s and 90s the exhibits on the ancient and Medieval world were completely redesigned and joined by new permanent exhibits: "An African Encounter" and "Beyond the Himalayas." Temporary exhibits like "The Carozzis on the Road" and "People of the Book" greatly increased visitation. The new exhibits inspired continued donations of important artifacts.
Talk of a new building, where the museum's collections could be more accessible to the public, again came to the fore. In 1990, the generous gift of William and Clarice Spurlock made the planning of a new, state-of-the-art facility a reality. Since their gift, many other friends of the museum have given generously to assure that the Spurlock Museum is everything that the original directors had envisioned... and much, much more.
Beginning in 1998, and lasting for four years, the Museum was closed to the public while the staff was busy moving the Museum’s collections and planning and building the permanent exhibits. The staff also was kept busy conducting educational programs in outreach to schools and the community. In 2000, the World Heritage Museum was renamed the Spurlock Museum in recognition of the generous gift that made the new facility a reality. The new facility opened in 2002, featuring cultural galleries that reflect the diversity of the museum's collection. Additionally, some spaces throughout the Museum have been devoted to temporary exhibits.